Are Children Learning

Memphis to join other big-city school districts getting focused results on the ‘nation’s report card’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County Schools is gaining a valuable new tool to help the district measure its student performance against school systems in other large cities.

The district will join 26 other big-city systems participating in national reading and math tests under the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP.

The tests will be administered beginning in 2017 to a sampling of Memphis fourth- and eighth-grade students in select schools representative of the district’s demographics.

The governing board for NAEP, which administers “the nation’s report card” every two years, voted last weekend to include Shelby County Schools in its new Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA.

Just as NAEP’s national tests provide a critical measure of each state’s academic performance, TUDA provides a significant measuring stick for urban districts, which generally have a higher concentration of black, Hispanic and low-income students than the nation as a whole.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson welcomed the inclusion of Shelby County Schools, which volunteered to be part of the program.

“It creates a learning opportunity,” Hopson said Tuesday. “The more objective data we have, it helps us to develop strategies.”

The program began in 2002 with just five cities to further mine data through NAEP.

“C​ities wanted to be able to compare themselves across state lines with other big­-city school districts that shared many of the same issues and challenges,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which suggested the idea.

“We wanted to be able to tell whether or not the reforms we were pursuing were producing results,” Casserly added.

NAEP issues the nation’s report card every two years, and Tennessee’s sizeable gains in 2013 served as the basis for its claim as the “fastest-improving state in the nation” in K-12 education. In 2015 results, Tennessee generally held its ground while most other states declined.

Students in urban school districts tend to score lower than the national average on NAEP reading and math tests. But data from the past 12 years shows that big-city school districts are narrowing that gap.

“We know without a doubt Shelby County Schools is driving those scores,” Hopson said of Tennessee’s NAEP gains, adding that the TUDA results should help to establish that.

Districts eligible to participate in TUDA must be in a city of at least 250,000 people and with a student population that is at least half non-white or eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Memphis has a population of 657,000, while students in Shelby County Schools are more than 92 percent non-white and almost 76 percent economically disadvantaged.

Here’s the list of urban school districts (including new additions marked *) participating in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment:

*Shelby County Schools

*Clark County School District (including Las Vegas)

*Denver Public Schools

*Fort Worth Independent School District

*Guilford County Schools (including Greensboro, N.C.)

*Milwaukee Public Schools

Albuquerque Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools

Austin Independent School District

Baltimore City Public Schools

Boston Public Schools

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Chicago Public Schools

Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Dallas Independent School District

Detroit Public Schools

District of Columbia Public Schools

Duval County Public Schools (Jacksonville, Florida)

Fresno Unified School District (California)

Hillsborough County Public Schools (Florida)

Houston Independent School District

Jefferson County Public Schools (Kentucky)

Los Angeles Unified School District

Miami-Dade County Public Schools

New York City Public Schools

School District of Philadelphia

San Diego Unified School District


Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.