Are Children Learning

Chicago students show slight gains in math on national exam, while reading plateaus

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke/Chalkbeat C
A classroom at Josephine Locke, where NWEA test results were announced Wednesday

Chicago students showed small gains in math but saw scores flatline in reading, according to new test scores released Wednesday.

Chicago Public Schools officials cited the new scores, on a national test called NWEA that city students take each year, as evidence that the district’s efforts to boost math skills are paying off. A school’s NWEA scores determine a big part of its quality rating, meaning that a district’s top-rated schools generally have stronger scores. Click here to use our database and see how your school stacks up.

The latest scores are separate from Illinois state test results. But they matter a lot in Chicago, where they also factor into an eighth-grader’s admission score to selective enrollment high schools and other competitive programs. A boost now offers Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is up for reelection, another data point to cite in his contested bid, adding to a recent study by a Stanford University researcher that identified Chicago as the fastest-improving urban district in the country.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke/Chalkbeat
Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson

Announcing the scores at Josephine Locke Elementary in Montclare, on the Far West Side just over the border from suburban Elmwood Park, Emanuel said the city isn’t yet satisfied with how students are performing, but their long-term progress was worth celebrating.

“If you know anything about Chicago Public Schools, and the teachers and the principals throughout the system, nobody is spiking the ball at the 20-yard line,” said Emanuel, alongside Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson. “But we should take note that, a short time ago, we were less than 50 percent of our kids reading or doing math at grade level or exceeding that.”

In reading, 61.4 percent of the district’s students in grades two through eight were on pace with their peers nationally or exceeding them, the same as in spring 2017. In math, 56.6 percent of students were on pace or exceeding it in spring 2018, compared to 55.9 percent the year prior.

In terms of how much progress students made over a single school year — their growth, in testing terms — 58.1 percent of Chicago students made the national average amount of progress in reading; 56.8 percent made the national average amount of progress in math.

Asked afterwards how specific groups of students performed, Jackson said half of black students in Chicago still aren’t achieving at grade level. When it comes to Latino learners, 61 percent met or exceeded grade level on the national assessment, compared to 86 percent of Asian students and 83.7 percent of whites. Latinos and African-American students make up the vast majority of the Chicago Public Schools population.

Jackson also said the district recognizes the stagnation, but the district has charged administrators with doing a better job by its black students this year. They’ve also worked to spread the word about the rollout of universal pre-K, which she believes will give children, particularly low-income ones, a stronger academic foundation.

“What got us to this point won’t get us to the next level,” she said.

Chicago schools administer the NWEA-MAP assessment in spring to second- through eighth-graders, with the option to use it as a midyear assessment. Many schools exercise this option so that teachers have a yardstick for student progress.

John Fitzpatrick, the principal at Locke, a pre-K-to-8 neighborhood school that is predominantly Latino, said he’s watched his school’s reading scores increase after putting new emphasis on reading, and math scores increase after focusing on math. This year, they used the assessment in first through eighth grade to tailor small group instruction in math, he said.

“So now we are trying to balance the whole thing,” he said. Still, scores don’t jump every year, he added.

“It’s like being on a diet and going on a scale — you can’t get frustrated. A couple of weeks you are going to stay the same. You just have to keep going.”


Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.

READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.