Sobering results

TNReady scores are down across the state, but they’re especially down in Memphis

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Tennessee education leaders have warned for more than a year that scores would drop statewide under a new test, which they did, but the scores especially dropped in Memphis.

That goes for both Tennessee’s largest school district and its state-run turnaround district.

Shelby County Schools lagged considerably behind the rest of the state on new high school TNReady results released Tuesday for districts and individual schools. Only 6.8 percent of its high school students scored on or above grade-level in Algebra I in 2015-16, compared to almost 21 percent statewide. The combined passing rate for English exams was almost 11 percent lower than the state’s, and it was 13 percent lower for all math exams.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results “sobering.”

“On one hand, we expected to see a decrease across the board with the introduction of a new test and far more rigorous standards, along with the change in test format and abrupt shifts in our assessment calendar,” he said in a statement. “Though the results are limited, there is no question that we have to work harder in order to help students learn and grow at the pace needed to be on track for graduation and ready for college and careers.”

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen reiterated Tuesday that educators shouldn’t be discouraged by the scores. “These scores show a student’s potential trajectory,” she said. “They are not a student’s destiny.”

Tennessee has planted its flag in Memphis in an effort to improve chronically low-performing schools through a collaboration of federal, state, local and philanthropic investments. The latest scores, which McQueen says “sets a new baseline” through more rigorous expectations, show just how far the state’s biggest district has to go to reach proficiency in 12 subjects.

“This is very hard work for teachers and school leaders, but ultimately it’s hardest on our students,” Hopson said of his district, which works with a large population of impoverished students. “We simply have to be better to help our students be successful.”

The TNReady scores are only for high school students because Tennessee canceled its tests for lower grades due to the bumpy transition to a new test. The results in Memphis mirror statewide scores released last month showing that the vast majority of Tennessee’s high school students are not prepared for college, as well as district-level scores showing that urban school systems scored below state averages.

Shelby County Schools saw the highest passing rates on science exams, peaking with 34.5 percent on biology. But that’s because Tennessee’s science tests won’t be updated until new science standards are phased in during the 2018-19 school year. Even in end-of-course science tests, Shelby County students lagged about 20 percentage points behind the state.

A bright spot was growth in literacy. Under Tennessee’s complex growth formula, Shelby County Schools earned the highest mark for literacy growth, though its overall growth score was low.

“It shows us we’re working on the right stuff, and we also saw gains in social studies, which relies heavily on literacy as a subject,” said Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez, noting the district’s comprehensive plan to improve reading scores.

Ramirez added that a similar initiative is in the works to improve math, focusing initially on deeper support for math teachers. “It takes time, but we hope we can move even faster on the math side. That’s an area where content knowledge can be a real challenge for our teachers and leaders,” she said.

McQueen said many districts struggled with growth in math because the test was so different. For the first time, calculators were prohibited for some questions.

“The depth of what the expectation was in terms of problem solving … was very different,” she said. “When you take (the calculator) away, that’s going to be a real adjustment, a real change.”

Achievement School District

Memphis also is the hub for the Achievement School District, the state’s turnaround district, which last spring included three high schools: Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory, Fairley and GRAD Academy.

Almost all of the ASD’s high school students failed the state’s new math exams. English tests did not fare much better, with an average of 8 percent passing them.

Still, the state-run district earned high marks for growth in literacy, suggesting that its students made some progress compared to struggling peers across the state.

Achieving a high literacy growth is significant, according to one charter network operator recruited by the ASD to implement a turnaround plan at MLK Prep.

“After the baseline year, people start to understand the rigor. … Teachers start to catch up.  That’s where we are once again,” said Bobby White, CEO of Frayser Community Schools.

“What (a growth score) tells us is what we’re doing in literacy is working,” he said. “We have a whole lot of more work to do, but the plans we have in place are moving the needle in the direction we want them to.”

The state’s test scores were released months later than usual due to the transition to a new test, but they’ll still be helpful for teachers, said Tamala Boyd Shaw, executive director of Project GRAD Academy.

“(TNReady scores) determine how we recruit and support our teachers. If we see that we scored low in particular subjects, we have to ask ourselves how we are selecting and supporting those teachers,” Shaw said. “We’ll look at the resources we’re using in those classrooms. Were we tracking data throughout the school? What kinds of assessments were our teachers giving? And how did all of that match up?”

You can view the state’s newly redesigned report card here and read Chalkbeat’s guide to understanding this year’s TNReady scores here.

Statehouse reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from leaders of Shelby County Schools.

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 33.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.


District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth


Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.