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.


Here are the four candidates to be the next superintendent of the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Four candidates are in the running to become the next leader of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district, including one who is based in Memphis.

The state Department of Education released to Chalkbeat on Wednesday the list of candidates to lead the Achievement School District. Three candidates are from outside of the state, and all four are men with experience in charters, turnaround work, or state departments of education.

One of these candidates would take the helm following the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012 with the goal to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations. Anderson was hand-picked by Chris Barbic, the district’s founding superintendent, following his departure in 2015.

The new superintendent would oversee 30 schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it started under Barbic.

Now the district is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

Here are the candidates, and what we know about their education backgrounds so far:

Keith Sanders, former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. Sanders currently runs a consulting group bearing his name in Memphis.

Sanders led turnaround efforts for Delaware’s state department from 2012-2014. He helped to run the state’s Partnership Zone, which launched in 2011 as an effort to boost Delaware’s lowest-performing schools. (Tennessee is embarking on its own Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.)

Sanders was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before co-founding the Miller-Mccoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education.

Barley is currently leading the Nevada Achievement School District, which was modeled in part after Tennessee’s turnaround district. He was previously the vice president for StudentsFirst (now named 50CAN), a political lobbying organization formed in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former school chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. His career in education started with Teach For America as a fourth-grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Stephen Osborn, chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Osborn has worked with the Rhode Island department since 2014 and currently oversees the department’s charter school authorization and school improvement efforts. Osborn spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Advanced Coursework Network, a course choice platform. He was previously an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Miller has overseen charter school expansion and operations at the Florida department since 2008. He also now oversees tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, scholarship programs for students with disabilities, education savings accounts, and private schools. He was previously with the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and was the executive director of Hope Center Charter School in Jensen Beach, Florida, which focused on children with autism.

The four candidates were identified over the last three months through the help of a search firm, K-12 Search Group.

The candidates have already interviewed with “key members of the ASD, charter, and funding community in Memphis,” said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. That group will provide feedback to Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will then narrow the list to two final candidates, Gast said. The last phase of the process will include public meet-and-greet opportunities before McQueen names the next superintendent.

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. ASD officials will host a meeting at the school Tuesday evening to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that a Nov. 18 parents meeting has been rescheduled to next week due to wintry weather.