Are Children Learning

More Memphis area students are graduating high school. But what does that mean?

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The 2018 spring graduation for the Memphis Virtual School was held May 22 in the Hamilton High School auditorium.

The number of students graduating from high schools in Shelby County and across the state has been rising for the last 10 years, but recent allegations of widespread improper grade changes in Memphis last year called into question if graduation rates were marred.

The results of a deeper probe of seven schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month. But Shelby County Schools officials said a number of strategies have contributed to the district’s growing number of graduates and they believe better monitoring of grade changes would protect the integrity of those numbers, including sudden jumps.

“It’s our goal to aggressively increase academic performance and graduation rates at a more rapid pace, and we’ve implemented a number of strategies to do so,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to see jumps in graduation rates alone as an indicator of improper grading practices.”

Grade changes had an impact on how many students graduated at Trezevant High School, the first school implicated in the controversy. Fifty-three students over four years obtained a diploma without passing the necessary classes, an investigation found.

Leaving high school with a diploma greatly increases a student’s chances of finding a job with a living wage and avoiding jail. But Tennessee policymakers have been pushing for more education beyond high school since college graduates and those with job certifications through technical colleges and similar schools have an even better chance of higher incomes later in life.

School districts often tie student performance to their graduation rates, citing better academics as one factor in rising graduation rates. In addition, federal law requires states to report their districts’ rates every year to monitor if some groups of students are lagging behind their peers.

Marisa Cannata, who consults with districts through Vanderbilt University on how to improve high schools, said getting a high school diploma “doesn’t mean that they’re college-ready.” The only thing the number of students who graduated truly measures is “accumulating credits in a timely manner.”

“I think of them as only one indicator of how well a school is serving a student,” she told Chalkbeat. “True improvement is going to be reflective in multiple indicators.”

Nonetheless, the district’s rising graduation trends reflect a similar upward trajectory for state and national graduation rates. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the total number in a high school cohort.

Tennessee is ahead of the pack in figuring out how to get more students to stay in and complete high school, said Jennifer DePaoli, the lead author on a recent national report analyzing federal graduation rate data.

“Tennessee is a state that we would say has really proven itself when it comes to raising student graduation rates,” she told Chalkbeat, adding it “still has some room to grow.”

In 2013, Tennessee was applauded in a national graduation report for outpacing the national average in nearly every category, including students from low-income families and students with disabilities. But in DePaoli’s report released last week, Tennessee’s growth in graduating its students has slowed, and has the 8th highest percentage of black students who didn’t graduate on time. The state’s graduation rate for students from poor families still ranks among the highest in the nation, however.

Before 2013, most students in the former suburban district, commonly referred to as legacy Shelby County Schools, consistently exceeded the state and national average with as many as 96 percent of students graduating on time. The number of students graduating from Memphis City Schools, which dissolved in 2013 after city school board members voted to consolidate with the county district, lagged behind the national and state average, hovering between 62 and 72 percent.

Legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools graduation rate compared to U.S. (2008-2012)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

Since then, more students have graduated from high school. After the merger in 2013, the county split again into seven school systems.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to have 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2025. The district, which is the largest in Tennessee, now sits at 79.6 percent for the class of 2017. Official numbers for the class of 2018 are expected to be released this fall.

Shelby County Schools, municipal districts, and the Achievement School District compared to U.S. (2013-2017)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

In the middle of all that, Tennessee raised the bar for students to graduate. The state had been stung in 2007 by a national report saying the existing state standards were weak and misled parents about how their students ranked against their peers nationwide. So, Tennessee started phasing in new graduation requirements in 2009 that increased the number of credits needed to graduate and introduced the current end-of-course exams.

Also, the state changed how schools and teachers are evaluated. In 2009, Memphis City Schools got a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul how the district recruits, trains, and evaluates its teacher workforce.

In 2010, the Tennessee Department of Education got a $500 million federal grant to recreate how it measures school success and partially tie teacher evaluation scores to student test results.

The state-run Achievement School District was born from that grant and started taking over low-performing schools in 2012. (The district didn’t have graduating seniors at high schools until 2014.)

In recent years, Shelby County Schools began to use data to help target students who might be at risk of dropping out. That kind of early warning system is part of a growing national effort to use mounds of student data to remove barriers to graduating, such as getting help with schoolwork, or pointing families to community resources to reduce absences early in a student’s high school career.

The district has also added reading specialists for ninth grade students who are behind and night and online classes for high school students so they wouldn’t have to wait until summer to retake failed courses. And before a student fails a class, district leaders have increased the number of offerings during the semester for a student to recover their grade.

In Memphis-area schools, 11 of the 48 in the region have fewer students graduating now than they did in 2008. Four of them dropped more than 5 percentage points:

  • Wooddale High School
  • Raleigh Egypt High School
  • Bolton High School
  • Ridgeway High School

Though there are 13 schools that have seen significant growth in the number of students who have graduated since 2008, they haven’t kept up with the district’s average ACT score, a common indicator of a student’s readiness for college.

But graduation rates and the ACT don’t actually measure the same things, said DePaoli.

“A lot of people would like to argue if graduation rates go up, we should be seeing gains in ACT scores and things like that,” she said. “We would like to see those things track together, but I don’t think there’s enough alignment there.”

Still, she said, “if kids aren’t getting higher scores on the ACT but the graduation rate is increasing, there is something to be really fearful of.”

Five Memphis area schools have now exceeded the district average for students graduating. Here are the 13 with the most growth:

  • B. T. Washington High School*
  • Oakhaven High School*
  • Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School (formerly Frayser High School)**
  • Hamilton High School
  • Sheffield High School
  • Westwood High School
  • Kingsbury High School
  • Manassas High School
  • East High School*
  • Craigmont High School*
  • Fairley High School**
  • Mitchell High School
  • Whitehaven High School*

*Schools that now exceeds Shelby County Schools’ graduation rate
** Taken over by the Achievement School District in 2014

Below you can look at your high school’s graduation rates over the years.

focusing in

Black student excellence: Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Mary Getachew, 15, right, laughs with her peer mentor Sabrin Mohamed,18, left, at Denver's North High School in 2016.

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of black and African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Denver Public Schools’ data show big disparities in how black students are served by the district. While 13 percent of the approximately 93,000 students are black,

  • 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions last year were given to black students,
  • 16.5 percent of students identified as having a disability were black,
  • Just 10 percent of students enrolled in rigorous high school courses were black.

The focus on black students comes after more than a year of relentless and high-profile advocacy from black parents and activists, and 2½ years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated in Denver Public Schools.

Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it was based on interviews with black educators conducted by former school board member Sharon Bailey, who has studied racial dynamics in Denver. It found that black educators feel isolated and mistreated by the district, and perceive that black students are more harshly disciplined in part because the young white women who make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce are afraid of them.

The report led to a task force, which presented the district with 11 recommendations. Among them: offering signing bonuses to help attract more black teachers, making student discipline data count toward school ratings, and requiring each school to create a plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools.”

Nearly two years later, none of that has happened. And much of what the district has done has been voluntary for teachers and schools. Meanwhile, the data keeps mounting.

Last year, 67 percent of black students graduated on time, meaning within four years of starting high school, compared with 78 percent of white students. On state math tests, 17 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored on grade level, compared with 65 percent of white students. The literacy gap was similar.

Avery Williams, a senior at George Washington High School, told the school board at a work session in December that “there’s an awkwardness around being black” in Denver schools.

“Teachers, specifically white teachers, don’t know how to act around me,” Williams said. Many of her classmates, she said, “do not know how to have respectful conversations because they’re afraid of being offensive or because they’re not educated in the right terminology.”

Michael Filmore, a junior at East High School, spoke about being one of only a few black students in his more rigorous classes, an experience Williams shares. After taking remedial classes his freshman year at East, Filmore said he decided to take all honors classes as a sophomore. He also took the public bus to school and was often late for first period.

“I would walk in the classroom and I would feel like I didn’t belong there,” Filmore told the board. “I felt uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be in these classes. I was pressured. I eventually dropped the class. My junior year, I felt that I would never let myself down again.”

At that December session, Bacon expressed a desire to more explicitly address issues affecting black students. The district has put that kind of focus on students learning English as a second language, many of whom are Hispanic, after a federal judge found the district was violating their rights. Under that order, the district has developed specific methods for teaching English language learners. It requires all new teachers to get certified to teach them.

Bacon and others questioned why that hasn’t happened for black students, as well.

“It’s not because there’s a lack of effort, will, or love,” Bacon said in an interview. “I think it’s because we’re not organized properly and we don’t have an internal stake in the ground around expectations, outcomes, and accountability measures. People want to see DPS is doing that.”

Her fellow board members agreed. On Thursday, they took turns thanking her for bringing forth the resolution, which directs the district to do several things:

  • Require all schools, including district-run and charter schools, to review data about student academic performance, discipline, and referrals for special education to understand how each school’s black students are doing “on an individual level”
  • Require all schools to set goals for supporting black students that prioritize giving them “access to grade-level and more rigorous coursework”
  • Require school leaders to articulate how they will monitor progress toward their goals
  • Train all district staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education
  • Conduct an “equity audit” to understand what the district is doing well and what it is not to figure out how it “can better prioritize the success of our black students”

It will now be up to new Superintendent Susana Cordova, who made equity a cornerstone of her bid for the district’s top job, to carry out the directive. The resolution gives her until May 31 to come up with a plan that would go into effect by the start of the next school year.

“We know that we have a painful and inequitable history of outcomes for our students,” Cordova said. “But facing this with courage, facing this in community, facing this with our stakeholders, our parents, our family members, our community members, and our students holding us accountable, I believe deeply in the ability of people to come together to solve these problems.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.