Looking for bright spots

Memphis high schools see lowest scores rise, but few students are passing

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Students work together at Middle College High School, one of only four Shelby County high schools to surpass state averages on the new test.

Memphis high school students who are failing state tests are improving in most subjects — one of a few silver linings amid mostly gloomy results for Tennessee’s largest school district.

State scores released on Wednesday show little movement in getting more Shelby County students to pass the standardized test. The percentage of those learning on grade level in math and English remained steady at almost 10 and 21 percent respectively, well below the state averages of 22 and 34 percent, which are also low.

But even as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results “sobering,” he celebrated some bright spots.

The percentage of students in the lowest category of scores decreased by 10 percent in English and 1 percent in math. And on end-of-year science tests — which are measuring standards that are on their way out — 5 percent fewer students scored extremely low. 

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner

“I think it’s remarkable work that we can all be proud of and celebrate,” Hopson told board members Tuesday night before the scores were released.

The scores mark the second year of results under Tennessee’s harder TNReady test. The assessment, aligned to Common Core academic standards, is designed to give students and parents a more accurate view of performance, in keeping with the results of national tests such as the ACT college entrance exam and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Last year, the Memphis district, which serves a majority of poor and black students, logged some of the state’s lowest scores amid a statewide drop.

This year, Shelby County leaders were hoping their scores would follow modest statewide gains showing more high schoolers performing at or above grade level. That didn’t happen, but they found consolation in other achievements.

Four out of the district’s 36 high schools exceeded the state’s passing averages in both English and math: Middle College, White Station, Germantown and Hollis F. Price. Each of those schools has a magnet program for high-performing students.

One notable downturn: The district’s charter school sector did not fare well and even “went backwards” in some areas, said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management for Shelby County Schools.

As a whole, district-authorized charters saw a slight decrease in the percentage of students on grade level in math, while the percentage of students passing in English stayed about the same.

Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin said Shelby County Schools will spend $5 million for professional development for teachers this year to adapt to the state’s new academic standards and the district’s new curriculums for those subjects.

“Our students can only be as great as our teachers,” she said.

You can search for any Tennessee district’s high school scores below.

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.