Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing schools is out. Is yours on it?

Memphis-Shelby County Schools more than doubled its number of schools on Tennessee’s list of bottom-performing schools, while schools from several rural districts made the list for the first time.

The state education department on Monday flagged 101 schools in 12 districts as so-called priority schools, meaning they were deemed academically in the bottom 5% in the 2021-22 school year.

The priority list is the state’s highest-stakes designation for holding low-performing schools accountable. But this year’s roster will be used only to identify schools eligible for additional federal funding and state support — not for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. 

Last month, after telling district leaders that Tennessee won’t grade its schools A-F this fall as planned, education department officials said the state also will pause from moving any schools into the ASD, which has logged mostly disappointing results at improving the schools it took over beginning in 2012.

The accountability reprieve comes amid challenges in gathering reliable student achievement and growth data during the pandemic, beginning in 2020 when state tests were canceled nationwide. 

In an Aug. 24 letter to superintendents, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said test participation in 2021 was inconsistent across Tennessee, making it difficult to compare results year to year. And in the most recent school year, school leaders grappled with chronic student absenteeism, COVID-related quarantines, and challenges with online learning. 

But the accountability pause is coming to a close, Schwinn has promised. The state is scheduled to issue a new priority school list in the fall of 2023, likely making 2024 the earliest that new schools could enter the ASD.

Tennessee’s school accountability system relies on achievement and growth results from state tests under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. “Priority” status denotes a school that’s consistently low-performing over multiple years, or a high school that has less than a 67% graduation rate during the most recent school year.

For 2022, Memphis-Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, had 36 priority schools, including seven charter schools, up from a total of 16 in 2021. 

Nashville’s school district went from 16 to 19 priority schools; Hamilton County from seven to eight; and Knox County had four schools. Districts in Cumberland, Fayette, Haywood, Henry, and Sevier counties had one priority school each, while Madison County had three and Maury County had two. 

Tennessee’s school turnaround district, the ASD, had 24 schools on the list.

Meanwhile, 19 schools came off the state’s list of priority schools, according to the department’s latest reports.

The rosters were among several reports released Monday by the state showing school and district designations for last school year, some of which are federally required. Those included high-performing “reward” schools, district ratings based on six performance indicators, and a list of schools needing targeted support to close disparities in student achievement based on race, poverty, disabilities, and language. 

Districts in Memphis and Nashville were designated as “advancing” school districts — the second-highest achievement — although the state’s two largest districts also had double-digit numbers of priority schools.

“The district will be working with these schools to ensure that evidence-based turnaround and success strategies are being implemented to support their students and faculty,” said a statement from Nashville school leaders.

In Memphis, district officials said they will target their priority schools by incentivizing attendance, providing extra coaching for school leaders, reviewing data regularly to provide targeted support, and helping families understand and track their child’s performance. 

“I think it’s going to take some time as we recover from the pandemic and transition the schools that are coming back from the ASD,” said Michelle McKissack, who chairs the school board there. “We have to absorb all that — the good, the bad — and move forward.”

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org. Chalkbeat reporter Samantha West contributed to this report.

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