Nearly 17% of Memphis students in grades 3-12 performed at or above grade-level expectations in math and English on state standardized tests in 2022 — a sign that the district has recovered some ground from the steep academic declines caused by the pandemic.
Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ latest scores under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, also known as TCAP, show an overall proficiency increase of about 6 percentage points from last year and a near return to pre-pandemic levels.
The district-level results, released to the public Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Education, largely mirror statewide scores, which showed improved proficiency across all subjects and grades last school year. But the results also underscored that Tennessee’s most vulnerable student groups — such as children with disabilities, those from low-income families, and students of color — continue to lag behind their peers academically.
MSCS officials are calling the gains in the latest batch of scores “good news.” They touted near total recovery in reading at all grade levels, including the district’s strongest high school English scores in five years, after a strong emphasis on literacy.
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The participation rate in 2022 TCAP testing was about 97% across the Memphis district, roughly comparable to last year’s 94% rate.
A year earlier, when the majority of MSCS’ more than 100,000 students had been learning online, the district’s overall proficiency rate slid to just over 10%, reflecting the impact of the learning loss during the height of the pandemic.
During a press conference Wednesday morning at Southwind Elementary, Superintendent Joris Ray described as “unprecedented” the challenges, disruptions, and trauma that children, educators, and families endured throughout the global health crisis.
Amid those challenges, he added, “Our school board and our academic team had an unprecedented vision. Our students, teachers, and parents showed unprecedented resilience. And Memphis-Shelby County Schools made an unprecedented comeback.”
Ray trumpeted the district’s investments of hundreds of millions of federal COVID relief dollars in a variety of academic strategies — such as increasing access to tutoring, adding teachers assistants to lower the student-to-adult ratio in K-2 classrooms, and providing year-round professional development.
And Ray heralded the district’s educators, who he said persevered on the front lines of a difficult year despite being underpaid and often undervalued. He commended other employees who keep the district’s more than 200 schools operating, from school principals and administrators to custodians, nutrition staff, and nurses.
But on the TCAP results, Ray and fellow administrators acknowledged that they have a lot of work ahead to get proficiency rates where they should be.
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Only about 21% of MSCS students in grades 3-12 met or exceeded grade-level expectations for English in the latest school year — up about 7 percentage points from last year, and about level with the 2019 score. (The state didn’t administer TCAPs in 2020.) And only about 13% of MSCS students in grades 3-12 met or exceeded grade-level expectations for math in 2022, up from 7% in 2021, but not quite back to the 2019 rate of 23%.
MSCS also saw small gains in social studies and science, with proficiency rates of nearly 22% and about 19%, respectively. In 2021, nearly 15% of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations for the subjects.
“We’re trending up; we have to celebrate our successes,” Ray said, adding there’s “still miles to go before we sleep.”
The latest scores come as Tennessee’s largest school district faces heightened scrutiny in the community. Citing poor academic performance, two education advocacy organizations, Memphis Lift and Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, have called on Ray to resign and urged the state to audit the district’s finances.
“We don’t want to go into another school year and get the same results,” Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis Lift, told a gathering of community activists, parents, and school board candidates last month. “Our babies are smart. Our children can read. It’s something not being done from the top down.”
Ray and school board members have called the accusations “political antics.”
“This superintendent, this school board will never let doubters, disbelievers, distractors derail us from our determination,” Ray said.
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School board Chair Michelle McKissack also appeared to hit back at Ray’s detractors, noting that he had been superintendent for only about a year when the pandemic began.
“He made the tough choice to put community health first,” McKissack said of Ray’s decision to keep learning online for most of the 2020-21 school year. “As a board … we supported that. We took a lot of heat for it, but I know with everything in me that it was the right decision.”
Heading into the next school year, Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support, said the district plans to continue its focus on students who live in poverty and face heightened barriers to academic success. Nearly 60% of MSCS students are considered economically disadvantaged by the state.
The latest TCAP scores show that for grades 3-12, only about 15% of low-income MSCS students are considered proficient in English, 8% are proficient in math, and 13% are proficient in science — about 5 to 7 percentage points below the rates for all students in each subject.
The gap is wider in social studies: About 14% of low-income students in grades 3-12 meet grade-level expectations, compared with about 22% overall.
To close those gaps, Whitelaw said the district will continue strategies it adopted this year to boost recovery, many of which Ray introduced during his state of the district address. They include increasing small group instruction, expanding before- and after-school tutoring; offering more honors and Advanced Placement courses; and expanding the district’s CLUE program for talented and gifted students.
The district is also working on ways to better support teachers, said Amie Marsh, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
Marsh said the district is increasing educators’ access to professional development and coaching. And under the district’s latest $2.1 billion budget, MSCS teachers will receive a 2% raise and $1,500 retention bonuses during the coming school year.
“As we move into year two of this, we’ve put some very strong tools in place,” Marsh said of the pandemic recovery effort. “We really want to make sure moving forward that we’re supporting our teachers and pushing our students to even greater heights.”
But improving student achievement at MSCS in the years to come, Ray said, will take more than the district’s efforts, many of which are funded by temporary federal COVID relief aid. He called for more community support — from parents taking time to read to their children, to increased financial support from the state and the county.
Ray referenced the district’s $55 million request this spring to the Shelby County Commission to help address hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred school maintenance and aging school buildings. Ultimately, commissioners granted MSCS less than half that amount, forcing district officials to put several proposed projects on hold — including the construction of a new high school in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood.
“It’s going to take more than just us,” Ray said. “We want to build new schools, but we need funds to do it.”
Correction: July 6, 2022: A previous version of this story gave incorrect proficiency rates for low-income students in English, math, science, and social studies.
Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kaitlyn Radde is a data reporting intern at Chalkbeat. Connect with Kaitlyn at email@example.com.