Leaders of Tennessee’s state-run district call test scores ‘sobering,’ ask educators for new energy

Sharon Griffin, the new leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, vowed to a crowd of school leaders and educators that together they would fix falling achievement scores in underachieving schools.

Griffin, who was named to lead the Achievement School District two months ago, spoke directly about the staggering challenges facing the 6-year-old school system. She was joined by state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during the district’s Summer Summit in Memphis on Tuesday, where educators set priorities for the school year.

This year’s batch of scores, which were released early in July, revealed that test scores for state-run schools remain far below the statewide average and dropped in high school. School-level data is not yet available.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called the new state test data for the turnaround district “sobering.” (Caroline Bauman)

“If I’m at stage 3, I need you to tell me what treatment is available,” Griffin told the crowd. “My commitment to the ASD moving forward is frequent communication on progress, lessons learned, and challenges.”

The Achievement School District — now made up of 30 schools, mostly in Memphis — was launched to transform the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools by converting them to charter schools.

In English II, 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.

In geometry, the drop was smaller, with 0.9 percent of high schoolers on or exceeding grade level, compared to 1.3 percent last year. The percentage of students on grade level has hovered around 1 percent in geometry for the last three years.

“I want transparency and honesty in where we are,” Griffin told the audience. “High school principals, you have the hardest job. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to tackle the issues. But a double-digit gain this year is what we need to be on track again.”

There was growth of scores in grades three through eight, however, 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.

Griffin said her game plan for improving the district includes monthly visits with community partners, a “students first” mentality, and coaches who will provide more support around professional development.

“Every school I have ever led was challenging and difficult,” said Griffin, a longtime Memphis educator and most recently the leader of the Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone. “But we’ve got this, ASD. Everything we need is in this room. Will it be easy? No. Is it possible? Yes.”

The iZone is made up of low-performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools and have outpaced progress of those run by the state.

Sharon Griffin was met with a standing ovation. (Caroline Bauman)

Both the lingering challenges and new hope for the state-run district – Griffin was greeted with a standing ovation – were on display during the daylong series of sessions. The summit began with presentations from Griffin and McQueen, who hired Griffin to spearhead the district of charter operators.

McQueen, who spoke first, praised the work of the state to improve standards in core instruction areas and create more accurate state tests and assessments. But she also called the new state test data for the turnaround district “sobering.”

“It’s like you’re training for a race, and you’re improving, but you are still in the last group that finishes the race,” McQueen said to the crowd. “I want you to start there, not discouraged, but knowing, ‘I have to do better than I did yesterday.’ ”

McQueen told Chalkbeat after the presentations that she and Griffin have been meeting to discuss additional student testing and changes to the curriculum as potential solutions to improving the district’s academics.

She said there’s a need to strengthen classroom curriculum in the district, and two solutions are requiring charter operators to select curriculum from a list of approved choices, and asking for more frequent testing of students.

“We went away over the last couple of years from (monthly) assessments,” McQueen said. “We need to see school by school how we’re doing during the year and not wait until the end to see where we are.”

Markeita Douglas, a Memphis parent who has watched the state-run district since it began, said after the event on Tuesday that she believed “today is the new day of the new beginning of the ASD.”

“‘The urgency is now’ is the phrase I’m left with,” said Douglas, who was present at the summit. “The data we looked at shows how the work has to be done now, we can’t wait any more. Real children need for things to get better.”