For the first time in seven years, Memphis-Shelby County Schools received the state’s highest rating for academic growth, another sign of an upswing after the deep learning losses caused by the pandemic.

Tennessee’s largest school district received Level 5 ratings for literacy, numeracy, and composite student growth as measured by end-of-year testing in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. It’s a significant jump from previous years: The state Department of Education has deemed MSCS a Level 1 or 2 school district for the last four school years.

In a news release Monday, MSCS also announced that 75 district-managed schools and 28 charter schools earned individual Level 5 composite ratings. MSCS has nearly 160 district-managed schools and about 55 charter schools.

“We are proud of this honor, because it affirms that our strategies and teachers are helping students make academic gains,” Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support, said in a statement.

The district’s TVAAS scores come a week after over 100,000 students returned to classrooms across Memphis for the new school year, which students, educators, and administrators hope will bring more recovery and a return to normal, despite some abnormal circumstances

The MSCS school year began without its leader, while Superintendent Joris Ray remains on paid administrative leave pending an external investigation into whether he abused his power and violated district policies by engaging in relationships with subordinates. Deputy Superintendents Whitelaw and John Barker are leading the district in Ray’s place.

Meanwhile, district-level scores from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP, show that the district has made progress in terms of student proficiency rates in key academic areas, though it still has a long way to go. The latest scores show 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, an increase of about 6 percentage points from the previous year and a near return to pre-pandemic levels.

But the TCAP results also underscored that some of the 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.

While TCAP gauges proficiency, TVAAS measures students’ academic progress over time, regardless of proficiency, and a Level 5 rating indicates that students’ growth over the previous year exceeded expectations.

Fewer than 30% of districts across Tennessee — including the state’s two largest school systems in Memphis and Nashville — received a Level 5 rating, according to statewide data also released Monday. 

To MSCS officials, the district’s Level 5 TVAAS rating signifies that while “not all students start at the same place,” they are “rebounding from the negative impacts of the pandemic, our teachers are effectively helping students to reach academic goals, and our curriculum plan is getting results,” the news release says.

Administrators also touted gains in literacy — a top focus at MSCS for the last several years — with 87% of district schools earning a Level 3 TVAAS rating or higher in that area, and 58% of schools receiving a Level 5.

With the new school year already underway, the district is focused on continuing the strategies adopted last year to boost COVID recovery, such as increased tutoring, smaller early elementary class sizes, improving teacher retention, and expanded summer programming.

“Memphis-Shelby County Schools is trending up,” said Barker, deputy superintendent of strategic operations and finance. “We’re working to continue those trends this year.”

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at