Shelby County’s students managed to slightly bump their test scores up last year, according to district-wide results released Wednesday. That’s despite a tumultuous year that included the historic merging of Memphis City and Shelby County School districts, massive layoffs and significant change in board and administrative leadership.

“If you think about what the staff has been through with the challenges of the merger and separation (of the district) and the huge challenges related to that, they deserve a pat on the back for continuing to educate our children and improve their performance with all of the distractions that we’ve had going on,” said William White, chief of planning and accountability.

But the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, scores showed, as the district fractures into seven districts and undergoes dramatic reform, education leaders have a long way to go to catch Memphis-area students up to their peers across the state. District leaders said Wednesday they will shift their focus this year from operational efforts to improving teacher quality.

“When we look at the sheer rates of proficient and advanced, we’re not satisfied with where we are,” White said.

Wednesday’s results only detailed district-level data. School-level scores will be released later in August. The state used combined test information from legacy Memphis City and legacy Shelby County in 2012-13 to establish this year’s target goals that the merged district needed to meet.

Shelby County Schools met 10 of the 11 academic goals set by the state in several areas including literacy and math, but missed its graduation rate goal by 3.7 percent with 73.7 percent of its students graduating last year.

Shelby County saw growth in all subject areas except for high school English III and third through eighth grade math which each dipped a percentage point.  Only a quarter of students scored proficient or advanced in high school English III and a little more than 41 percent of third through eighth grade students were proficient or advanced in math.

Only 41 percent of the district’s third through eighth graders are reading at a proficient or advanced level.

Shelby County Schools saw the largest improvement in high school Algebra I which increased from 46 percent to 54 percent.

But Memphis-area students’ scores were far lower than the state’s average scores.

For example, around 47 percent of Memphis-area high school students scored proficient or advanced on the state’s biology tests compared to 63 percent of the state’s average district. However, biology and science are not subjects that count against districts in the state’s accountability measure.

Last year, the district’s leaders attempted to merge two districts after Memphis City schools gave up its charter, becoming one of the largest districts in the country and bringing in a slate of new leaders. The effort failed when six municipalities petitioned the state to create their own separate districts. That sparked a lawsuit and dramatic budget cuts that lead to massive layoffs and school closings.

Meanwhile, several schools in Memphis were taken over by the state-run Achievement School District after chronically-low dismal test results.  Several more schools in Memphis could likely be taken over by the state over the next several years.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said Wednesday he was glad to see the district’s gains outpace statewide gains but was not satisfied.

“We are very pleased to know we’re trending in the right direction,” Hopson said. “However, we cannot rest with slight gains; we must press forward with a more aggressive agenda that increases student achievement at a more rapid rate.”

In the upcoming school year, which begins on Monday,  the district will focus more on improving literacy and college and career readiness.

“We believe the best way to address (improvement) is to focus on teacher and leader effectiveness at every grade level,” White said.  “Our focus is making sure that we have highly effective teachers, and that we provide support for teachers and leaders who are not as effective as we’d like.”

If a student is not reading well in the third grade, White says, the district has to work with parents to intervene.

“We need (parents) to help develop their child’s language skills through conversations and their literacy skills by reading with them,” he said.

Hopson recently set the district’s long-range goals earlier this year to have 80 percent of its students graduating “college-and career-ready,” 90 percent of students graduating and 100 percent of college- and career-ready students heading to postsecondary opportunities by 2025.

Hopson also hired former Memphis City Schools leader Carol Johnson to help guide the district in making decisions and in selecting its next chief of academics.

And he vowed to the families of students at several schools he shuttered last year that they would have additional education opportunities at their new schools.  One of the opportunities Shelby County is piloting this year is blended learning, which provides students with laptops to use in class and at home to continue studying and receive academic support.  The district spent $5.5 million to place the program in 16 schools.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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