It’s been six years since Tennessee took over its first low-performing schools. How are they doing?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Humes Middle School is one of the original six schools taken over by the state of Tennessee in 2012.

Six years after the state took over six of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, all of those schools continue to struggle, new state test results show.

The state’s ambitious goal with the Achievement School District was to transform the schools that tested in the bottom 5 percent into top-performers within five years. Though the district’s founder later acknowledged the goal was too lofty, the new test results shed light on the massive challenge ahead for the schools and for Sharon Griffin, who became the district’s new leader in June.

The original six ASD schools and current operators

  • Brick Church College Prep, LEAD
  • Lester Elementary, Cornerstone Prep
  • Humes Middle School, Frayser Community Schools
  • Corning Achievement, Achievement Schools
  • Frayser Achievement, Achievement Schools
  • Westside Achievement, Frayser Community Schools

Of the schools in the original state-run district, four of the six had fewer than 10 percent of students testing at or above grade level in math or English during the 2017-2018 academic year, according to TNReady test results released last week.  Meanwhile, Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary School in Memphis performed better than its counterparts with 11.5 percent of students at grade level in English and 20 percent of students at grade level in math. Frayser Achievement Elementary had 12 percent of students at grade level in English, but just 9 percent at grade level in math.

As a point of comparison, statewide averages for grades 3-8 had 33.9 percent of Tennessee students at grade level in English and 37.3 percent at grade level in math.

In taking over these schools back in 2012, the state handed them over to charter organizations. Five were launched in Memphis, and Brick Church College Prep was opened in Nashville. The state-run district now has 30 schools, the majority of which are in Memphis.

Search for any school within the Achievement School District below, including the original six. You can compare 2018 TNReady scores to see the percent of students scoring at/above grade level and growth scores for multiple schools. Note: The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students were on grade level.

The idea for the state district was originally based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana. But while the New Orleans charter-led district has seen success in boosting academic achievement, the Tennessee district was never set up for the same success, said Douglas Harris, a Tulane Professor of Economics and founder of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

The Achievement School District requires its charter schools to enroll 75 percent of students from the surrounding neighborhoods. The New Orleans recovery district was open enrollment, which drives schools to compete for students, Harris told Chalkbeat. He also noted that the  Tennessee state district has yet to close charter schools that aren’t rising to the challenge of transforming underperforming schools.

“If you look at New Orleans, one of the main sources of improvement here was the takeover process,” Harris said. “Some charter operators that were initially brought in were not successful, and so the state turned those schools over to charter operators who were showing success. At least half of the improvement in New Orleans was just driven through that process.”

While four schools in the Tennessee state district have closed due to issues like under-enrollment, the state has not closed or replaced charter operators in the district due to low performance.

Harris said that after six years, the district should be seeing more fruit.

“On one hand, creating an entirely different way of governing schools does take time,” Harris said. “On the other hand, based on what we know so far in New Orleans, the ASD hasn’t been designed to succeed. They are trying to adopt a couple of pieces from New Orleans without the complementary pieces that were important to making system work as a whole.”

Here are the percentages of students scoring on or above grade level in English:

Time for improvement?

Tennessee also ran schools directly, which Harris called a mistake. Whereas most schools in the Achievement School District are run by an outside charter organization, Corning and Frayser elementaries and Westside Middle School in Memphis were initially taken over by a charter organization created by the state. (This fall, however, the state has handed off Westside to a new charter operator in the Achievement School District.)

Notably, two of the three Memphis schools that were directly taken over by the district in 2012  had some of the largest dips in student test results — Corning Achievement Elementary School and Westside Middle School.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have stood by the state district, even after another year of lackluster results.

On a Wednesday visit to Georgian Hills Elementary, an Achievement district school in Memphis that’s seen some academic success, Haslam said he believes that six years in, the state district is still “growing into itself.”

“The ASD started out of nothing, and took over some of our most difficult schools,” said Haslam, who is term-limited. “We’re growing into that challenge, and I still believe it’s a good thing for the state, for Memphis, and for Shelby County.”

But Haslam also said changes were and are needed — and the biggest way the state is trying to turn the tide is through the new leadership of Sharon Griffin, the former leader of the Innovation Zone, a Shelby County Schools-led initiative to improve low-performing schools in Memphis’ traditional district. The iZone was launched in response to the state district takeovers, but has shown greater initial success at boosting scores.

Here are the percentages of students scoring on or above grade level in math:

Leadership change

Griffin recently hired a new central office team looking to boost the academic performance of all schools within the state district, and particularly the school that the state runs directly. She’s also pledged to improve the district’s relationship with its communities and retain high-quality teachers — two issues that have plagued the district.

Ron Zimmer, a professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky, has authored numerous studies on Tennessee turnaround efforts — including a brief earlier this summer concluding that schools in the state district are doing no better than other low-performing schools that received no state help.

Zimmer told Chalkbeat that an initial look at the recent school-level data backs up the brief’s grim assertion. But he also said he hopes the state gives Griffin a chance to show what she can do.

“She certainly had success in the Innovation Zone, and the ASD hasn’t matched that level of success,” said Zimmer, who has studied Griffin’s iZone efforts. “One of the things she told us while she was at the iZone was that early wins were needed to build momentum early on improving performance. She’s walking into a different situation with the ASD, there are no early wins. It’s a tall task, but she certainly deserves a chance to achieve it.”

But some Memphis residents are saying Griffin’s appointment is too little, too late. Jerry Wilson’s Frayser neighborhood in Memphis is home to nine schools in the state district, three of which are run directly by the state.

“Initially you can say it takes time, but after six or seven years, you can’t say that anymore,” said Wilson, the pastor at Faith Church Methodist Church and former Frayser Neighborhood Council president. “It is what it is. You have to say: This experiment is over and these charter schools aren’t able to manage these schools and shouldn’t be getting any more money from the state to do so. The issue has always been accountability. There isn’t ultimate accountability.”

Wilson said that Griffin has a “proven track record of turning around schools,” but that structural changes need to accompany leadership changes in the district.

Despite lagging state test scores, a bright spot for the original six Achievement School District schools are their growth scores. 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. To calculate the growth score, the state compares a student’s performance to the performance of his or her peers who have performed similarly on past assessments, according to the state.

While the Achievement School District scored in the lowest level of student growth as a district, Corning, Frayser, and Lester elementaries scored a 3, and Brick Church scored a 4.

“Turning around schools is really difficult, especially schools in some of our most challenging neighborhoods,” Haslam said. “The key thing [for the next governor] is to decide what you want to do, get the right leaders in place, and stay the course … I think we have a great leader now who is a product of Memphis schools.”

Note: This is the first time there is year-over-year TNReady data for the Achievement School District. There are no scores for the 2015-2016 school year because tests for middle and elementary schools were cancelled across the state after a series of logistical and technical challenges. And comparing the last two years of TNReady results to state tests prior to 2015 would be like comparing apples and oranges, because Tennessee moved to a new, more rigorous state test in 2015.

Graphics by Sam Park.

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:


School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.