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.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: