TN scores dump

School-level test scores are in for the Achievement School District. And they’re bleak.

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

In English and math exams, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level, according to Tennessee school-level test data released on Thursday.

Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary, an elementary school in the state district, had the highest percentage of students scoring on grade level in math at 20 percent. Promise Spring Hill Elementary had the highest percentage of students scoring on grade level in English with 15 percent.

High schools struggled even more with math and English — not one of the six state high schools had more than 7 percent of students scoring on grade level. (Read about last year’s results for high schools and elementary/middles schools in the state district).

Search for a school within the Achievement School District or Bluff City High School below. You can compare TNReady scores to see the percent of students scoring at/above grade level and growth scores for multiple schools.

The news is not surprising: The Achievement School District oversees 30 of the state’s lowest-performing schools, the majority of which are in Memphis. But as the district settles into its seventh year, the results show student progress remains woefully short of the original goal — to transform the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools within five years by converting them to charter schools.

Some of the best scores for the district were in science — 16 schools had 16 percent of students or more scoring on grade level. Cornerstone Prep Lester had the highest percentage at 41.5 percent. But Tennessee is transitioning to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject this year.

However, there’s not a full picture of how the 30 schools within the district fared. Out of 113 TNReady tests administered to students, 38 came back marked with asterisks instead of test data for the percentage of students on-track/mastered, also known as the percentage of students scoring on or above grade level.

The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students were on grade level or if 95 percent of students were above grade level.

District-wide results released in July showed students in the state schools are performing far below the statewide average, especially in high school. In fact, scores are dropping. In English II, a high school course, only 4 percent of high schoolers were on or exceeding grade-level, down from 9.8 percent last year. Three years ago, 10.2 percent of students were on grade level.

There was overall growth of scores in grades three through eight, but students in the state-run district are still scoring 28.1 points below the statewide average in math and 25.7 points below the statewide average in English.

State leaders told educators in the Achievement School District in July that the test results were “sobering.” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen appointed Sharon Griffin, a proven turnaround leader in Memphis, to take over the struggling district this school year. Griffin has said that the game plan for improving the district includes monthly visits with community partners, transparency, a “students first” mentality, and coaches who will provide more support around professional development

The Achievement School District scored in the lowest level of student growth. Student growth is measured in Tennessee on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

A bright spot for the state district was the eight schools that scored a 5, or in the top level of student growth: Kirby Middle, Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, Cornerstone Denver, Wooddale Middle, Neely’s Bend, Lester Prep, Promise Academy Elementary, and Aspire Middle School.

But 10 state schools scored in the bottom level possible for measuring academic growth. Westside Middle, Whitney, Pathways in Education Whitehaven, Pathways in Education Frayser, Humes Middle School, KIPP Prep Middle, Fairly High School, MLK College Prep High School, Hillcrest High School and GRAD Academy High all scored a 1. (GRAD Academy closed after May).

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, and after a wild spring of testing hampered by technical problems in the state’s return to widespread computerized testing. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools. However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores.

The school-level results also were released during a time of escalating tension over the TNReady test. School superintendents, state lawmakers, and the state’s top education officials are weighing in over whether the state should continue testing.

There was no data provided for a new Memphis high school under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education, Bluff City High School. According to state data, Bluff turned in 133 English exams and 141 math exams. But no results were provided by the state — meaning either only 5 percent of students were on grade level or more than 95 percent of students were on grade level.

Bluff City High, run by Green Dot Public Schools, opened last fall with 160 ninth-graders. The school is overseen by a different kind of state district — the Board of Education, which is a separate entity from the State Department of Education.

Despite the lack of testing data provided by the state, Bluff City was recorded as a level 5 for growth.

The results are significant because this is the first time the State Board has operated as a direct overseer of schools. The State Board can authorize charter schools if the conditions are right in counties with the highest number of low-performing schools. If a local board denies a charter application, the operator can appeal to the State Board, which can then become the authorizer if it overturns the local board and the local board still declines to authorize the school.

NOTE: A spokeswoman from the state Department of Education said results for grades 3-8 social studies are preliminary, and official results will be released in September. U.S. History results were only available for Hillcrest, where 10.2 percent of students scored on grade level, and MLK College Prep, where 8.8 percent of students scored on grade level.

Correction: A previous version of the story stated that new science standards were implemented last year. They will be implemented this year.

Data dive

Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing schools. But because too few of its students took the state exams — and those who did weren’t enrolled long enough — there is no clear picture of how well the school is educating them.

The virtual charter school, which opened in 2017, more than doubled in size to 6,232 students since last fall, in part because state data shows more than 1,700 students transferred from its troubled sister school, Indiana Virtual School.

But despite Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s rapid growth, the school is bypassing a key accountability measure that Indiana thinks is important for transparency: A-F grades, which were approved by the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Education department officials said the school did not get a grade, despite its high enrollment last year, because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough to have one calculated. State grades are based primarily on student test scores, and virtual schools are known to struggle to get their remote students to sit for exams.

State test participation rate data shows IVPA tested about 19 percent of its 346 10th-graders in 2018 — about 65 students. To use test scores to calculate a school grade, the state requires that at least 40 test-takers must have attended the school for at least 162 days, a majority of the school year. But state officials said that while the school enrolled 48 10th-graders who met the attendance threshold during the testing period, only three of those students took the exams.

Federal requirements say schools must test at least 95 percent of students, and school grades can be affected if a school falls below that percentage. But there is currently no consequence for a school that doesn’t test enough students to get a letter grade.

The students who were tested at IVPA posted poor results: 5.7 percent passed both state English and math exams.

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School and IVPA did not respond to requests for comment on A-F grades or testing participation, but the schools’ superintendent Percy Clark said in an emailed statement that students from varying education backgrounds select IVPA, and that the school was designed to serve students who are far behind their peers academically.

“Our students CHOOSE to come to Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy from many different backgrounds, and we accept everyone regardless of where they are on their academic journey,” Clark said.

Virtual charter school critics say IVPA’s lack of a letter grade is an example of how the schools are able to avoid scrutiny.

“It’s absolutely indefensible,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an organization that advocates for charter schools but has been a vocal critic of virtual charter schools. “When it comes to charter schools, the grand bargain is that the charter school gets increased autonomy, and in exchange, there is greater accountability. It’s hard to see where the accountability is for virtual schools right now.”

In contrast to IVPA, other large virtual schools in the state tested at least 90 percent of their students, and nearly every traditional school in Indiana met the federal threshold for testing students.

Indiana Virtual School, the subject of a Chalkbeat investigation that revealed questionable educational and spending practices, tested about two-thirds of its students in 2018. Students at the school, which received its third F grade from the state this week, did marginally better than at IVPA, but performed far below state averages: 18.6 percent of elementary and middle school students passed both tests, and 4.4 percent of high-schoolers did. State law says schools are up for state board of education intervention when they reach four consecutive F grades.

Brown, who used to work in the Indianapolis mayor’s office overseeing charter schools, said this is where charter school authorizers — the entities charged with monitoring the schools’ operations, finances, and academics — need to be involved. Daleville Public Schools, a small rural district near Muncie, oversees IVS and IVPA. State education leaders have previously questioned whether school districts have the capacity and expertise to oversee statewide charter schools. District leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“If I was still an authorizer and one of our schools had less than a 20 percent rate of their students taking the ISTEP, we would be mortified, and we would be holding that school accountable with very clear measures,” Brown said. “In light of the tens of millions of dollars used to fund this school, there has to be at least a basic level of accountability, and right now, it’s hard to account for how that money is being spent because we just don’t know.”

With such high enrollment numbers, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy could together bring in upward of $35 million from the state for this school year, according to funding estimates from the Legislative Services Agency.

At the state’s other full-time virtual charter schools — including those billed as alternative schools like IVPA — state grades are rising as enrollment grows. Indiana Connections Academy is up to a D this year from an F, and Insight School of Indiana is up to a C from an F. For grades under Indiana’s federal plan, the schools received an F and D, respectively.

Indiana Connections Career Academy enrolled about 70 students last year and received no grade, but education department officials say that is because it had too few students to calculate one, despite testing more than 95 percent of them. It’s not uncommon for small schools — especially high schools that have just one tested grade — to not get a grade. This year, the school’s enrollment is up to about 300 students.

Virtual charter school accountability has become a hot issue in Indiana. Earlier this year, the state board of education convened a committee to study virtual charter schools, which have grown rapidly here in recent years. And last month, the committee released a series of recommendations, including slowing growth of new virtual charter schools to 15 percent per year — after a school hits 250 students — for their first four years.

Getting students who are located remotely to sit for state exams is a challenge for virtual schools. Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, said dogged work contacting and keeping up with students has made some of the difference for her school, both in students taking tests and improving on them.

“Our teachers are relentless in trying to engage with kids,” she said. “We are by no means where we want to be. We still have a lot of work to do. But 8-point growth is something that we’re celebrating today.”

Melissa Brown said the school is also offering students who come in behind grade level more ways to make up their classes and incentives for them to stay at the school. For example, she said the school has a lot of over-age eighth-graders who should be in high school. Instead of just drilling their eighth-grade classes, they also have a chance to try out high school-level work — a taste of what’s to come, Brown said. So far, it’s working.

“We’re just trying to be really creative about helping kids progress,” she said.

At Insight, school director Elizabeth Lamey said she’s excited by how the high school has been able to help students show more growth on state tests. Currently, the school, which opened in 2016, is getting grades calculated only on how much students improve on state tests from one year to the next, not their proficiency or other measures such as graduation rate.

Lamey said improving the school’s curriculum and focusing on remediation and teacher training contributed to their progress and sets them up to continue that work.

“We hope to see even more growth this year,” Lamey said. “We know that it’s a rougher road, the older students get, to remediate. It takes more time, and we are slow and steady — we keep moving forward.”

Accountability issues will continue to be important for virtual charter schools as their enrollments grow.

Indiana’s five full-time virtual charter schools enroll about 13,000 students. Although it appears that total virtual charter school enrollment in Indiana has declined since 2017-18, those figures include the closing of low-performing Hoosier Virtual Academy. The school enrolled 1,170 students when it closed in June, which was far lower than the 3,342 it was recorded as having at the beginning of that school year.

Comparing enrollment totals between fall of 2017 and fall of 2018, every virtual charter school currently open in the state saw enrollment rise, with the exception of Indiana Virtual School. Indiana Connections Academy and its sister school, Indiana Connections Career Academy, gained nearly 400 students between them. Insight is also up 45 students.

Virtual charter schools tend to have volatile enrollment patterns in part because of how easily students can enroll and withdraw — their families don’t have to move, and they can live anywhere in the state. Students moving between schools is not unique to virtual schools, but those schools do tend to see higher instances of mobility than traditional schools.

That means it can be hard to determine just how much virtual school enrollment has changed from one year to the next — enrollment numbers reported in the fall might fluctuate wildly through the rest of year.

Are Children Learning

These are the 7 schools IPS leaders are most worried about

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 48 is one of the campuses identified for a quality review.

Seven schools will be getting a closer look, and possible intervention, after Indianapolis Public Schools administration identified them as some of the lowest-performing schools in the district.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration announced this week the schools that were chosen for school quality reviews based on performance on the state ISTEP exam. This is the second year the district has initiated its own assessment of struggling schools, which will include district visits to the schools, and interviews with leaders, staff, and families.

The reviews are designed to help schools improve, district officials said. But campuses could also face the possibility of being restarted as innovation schools. If that happens, they would likely be taken over by outside charter or nonprofit operators, who would overhaul the schools with largely new staff. Schools can also be selected for restart based on repeated failing grades from the state.

One of the seven schools identified by the district last year was ultimately restarted as an innovation school. The other schools received different kinds of help such as working with schools to help teachers collaborate better, officials said.

“This is a clear example of our commitment to helping drive improvement at these schools where we see there’s a lack of improvement,” Ferebee said.

One sign that less drastic efforts helped is that only one campus, School 48, appeared on the list for the second year in a row.

“As a matter of fact, a few of the schools from last year had some of the highest growth that we saw in the district,” said Andrew Strope, the district’s performance and continuous improvement officer.

One wrinkle for the district is that three of the seven schools identified are already innovation schools. That raised concerns for board member Venita Moore.

“I was surprised to see these … innovation schools on the list,” Moore said. “But I think it does provide our community insight that we take seriously the quality of the education that our children are receiving.”

When innovation schools are created, the operators have contracts with Indianapolis Public Schools. Those agreements typically stipulate that the contracts can be ended if the schools receive D or F grades from the state for three or more consecutive years.

Ferebee cautioned, however, that restarting them again would create more upheaval. “Often times that creates instability that is not always helpful,” he said. “The goal, I just want to continue to reiterate, is to ensure we can help these schools improve their performance.”

These are the seven schools identified as having test scores in the bottom quarter and growth scores in the bottom half for the district.

  • Stephen Foster School 67
  • Eleanor Skillen School 34
  • Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School 15
  • Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder Diggs 42
  • Kindezi Academy at Joyce Kilmer 69
  • James Russell Lowell School 51
  • Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48