Memphis shows reading, math improvement on national test, but lags behind other urban districts

Memphis students held steady or improved in reading and math on a national test used widely to compare student performance across locations.

The most significant jump in student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, was in eighth-grade math where the average score increased by about eight points. But when compared to results in 26 other large cities, Memphis scored significantly lower than average.

Shelby County Schools was included in the city comparison for the first time in 2017, when students ranked in the bottom third, where they remain. This year the city improved its ranking in all areas except fourth-grade math, which held steady at 20th out of 27.

The national test — often called The Nation’s Report Card — is low stakes for individual students and schools, but high stakes for politicians and education leaders who use the scores to champion or denounce education policies. The federal agency that administers the tests warns against connecting scores to specific policies.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn visited Memphis early in her tenure. Pictured here with Superintendent Joris Ray, right. (Shelby County Schools)

Superintendent Joris Ray said he was “extremely proud of the results.”

“It shows the district is focusing on effective instructional initiatives, and our educators deserve the credit for leading this work in the classroom,” Ray said in a statement Wednesday morning.

A national nonprofit leader who helps share best practices among urban districts called the district’s performance “some of the strongest gains of any major city in the country.”

“In the one area where the nation declined significantly, which was eighth grade reading, Shelby County held its own,” Mike Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said in a district statement. “The reforms that the school district is pursuing academically are clearly producing results for students. Congrats to Shelby County.”

The national results mostly mirror improvements Shelby County Schools students made on Tennessee’s annual test known as TNReady. This spring, 20.9% of eighth-grade students scored proficient in math, up 11 percentage points compared with 2017.

Related: Tennessee edges toward the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card, thanks to drops elsewhere 

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said the corresponding upward trend lines on state and national tests is encouraging. A previous gap in state and national results earned the state an “F” in honesty from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2007, spurring a slew of changes in how the state assesses student performance.

“Another reason to celebrate is that our assessments are more closely aligned than they have been in the past,” Schwinn told reporters Tuesday. “There’s a significant improvement in math, and I think that that’s something we’re very, very excited about and that frankly Shelby County should be very proud of.”

NAEP scores in reading and math are scaled from 0 to 500. Below are the changes in scores and Memphis’s ranking out of 27 urban districts.

  • Fourth-grade math: 20th at 228, up 3 points but no change in ranking since 2017
  • Fourth-grade reading: 17th at 205, up 2 points and moving up in the rankings by 3 since 2017
  • Eighth-grade math: 18th at 265, up 8 points and moving up in the rankings by 5 since 2017
  • Eighth-grade reading: 18th at 249, up less than a point and moving up in the rankings by 2 since 2017

Here’s how Shelby County Schools ranked among urban districts on the four tests: