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.