It’s been six years since Tennessee took over its first low-performing schools. How are they doing?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Humes Middle School is one of the original six schools taken over by the state of Tennessee in 2012.

Six years after the state took over six of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, all of those schools continue to struggle, new state test results show.

The state’s ambitious goal with the Achievement School District was to transform the schools that tested in the bottom 5 percent into top-performers within five years. Though the district’s founder later acknowledged the goal was too lofty, the new test results shed light on the massive challenge ahead for the schools and for Sharon Griffin, who became the district’s new leader in June.

The original six ASD schools and current operators

  • Brick Church College Prep, LEAD
  • Lester Elementary, Cornerstone Prep
  • Humes Middle School, Frayser Community Schools
  • Corning Achievement, Achievement Schools
  • Frayser Achievement, Achievement Schools
  • Westside Achievement, Frayser Community Schools

Of the schools in the original state-run district, four of the six had fewer than 10 percent of students testing at or above grade level in math or English during the 2017-2018 academic year, according to TNReady test results released last week.  Meanwhile, Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary School in Memphis performed better than its counterparts with 11.5 percent of students at grade level in English and 20 percent of students at grade level in math. Frayser Achievement Elementary had 12 percent of students at grade level in English, but just 9 percent at grade level in math.

As a point of comparison, statewide averages for grades 3-8 had 33.9 percent of Tennessee students at grade level in English and 37.3 percent at grade level in math.

In taking over these schools back in 2012, the state handed them over to charter organizations. Five were launched in Memphis, and Brick Church College Prep was opened in Nashville. The state-run district now has 30 schools, the majority of which are in Memphis.

Search for any school within the Achievement School District below, including the original six. You can compare 2018 TNReady scores to see the percent of students scoring at/above grade level and growth scores for multiple schools. Note: The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students were on grade level.

The idea for the state district was originally based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana. But while the New Orleans charter-led district has seen success in boosting academic achievement, the Tennessee district was never set up for the same success, said Douglas Harris, a Tulane Professor of Economics and founder of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

The Achievement School District requires its charter schools to enroll 75 percent of students from the surrounding neighborhoods. The New Orleans recovery district was open enrollment, which drives schools to compete for students, Harris told Chalkbeat. He also noted that the  Tennessee state district has yet to close charter schools that aren’t rising to the challenge of transforming underperforming schools.

“If you look at New Orleans, one of the main sources of improvement here was the takeover process,” Harris said. “Some charter operators that were initially brought in were not successful, and so the state turned those schools over to charter operators who were showing success. At least half of the improvement in New Orleans was just driven through that process.”

While four schools in the Tennessee state district have closed due to issues like under-enrollment, the state has not closed or replaced charter operators in the district due to low performance.

Harris said that after six years, the district should be seeing more fruit.

“On one hand, creating an entirely different way of governing schools does take time,” Harris said. “On the other hand, based on what we know so far in New Orleans, the ASD hasn’t been designed to succeed. They are trying to adopt a couple of pieces from New Orleans without the complementary pieces that were important to making system work as a whole.”

Here are the percentages of students scoring on or above grade level in English:

Time for improvement?

Tennessee also ran schools directly, which Harris called a mistake. Whereas most schools in the Achievement School District are run by an outside charter organization, Corning and Frayser elementaries and Westside Middle School in Memphis were initially taken over by a charter organization created by the state. (This fall, however, the state has handed off Westside to a new charter operator in the Achievement School District.)

Notably, two of the three Memphis schools that were directly taken over by the district in 2012  had some of the largest dips in student test results — Corning Achievement Elementary School and Westside Middle School.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have stood by the state district, even after another year of lackluster results.

On a Wednesday visit to Georgian Hills Elementary, an Achievement district school in Memphis that’s seen some academic success, Haslam said he believes that six years in, the state district is still “growing into itself.”

“The ASD started out of nothing, and took over some of our most difficult schools,” said Haslam, who is term-limited. “We’re growing into that challenge, and I still believe it’s a good thing for the state, for Memphis, and for Shelby County.”

But Haslam also said changes were and are needed — and the biggest way the state is trying to turn the tide is through the new leadership of Sharon Griffin, the former leader of the Innovation Zone, a Shelby County Schools-led initiative to improve low-performing schools in Memphis’ traditional district. The iZone was launched in response to the state district takeovers, but has shown greater initial success at boosting scores.

Here are the percentages of students scoring on or above grade level in math:

Leadership change

Griffin recently hired a new central office team looking to boost the academic performance of all schools within the state district, and particularly the school that the state runs directly. She’s also pledged to improve the district’s relationship with its communities and retain high-quality teachers — two issues that have plagued the district.

Ron Zimmer, a professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky, has authored numerous studies on Tennessee turnaround efforts — including a brief earlier this summer concluding that schools in the state district are doing no better than other low-performing schools that received no state help.

Zimmer told Chalkbeat that an initial look at the recent school-level data backs up the brief’s grim assertion. But he also said he hopes the state gives Griffin a chance to show what she can do.

“She certainly had success in the Innovation Zone, and the ASD hasn’t matched that level of success,” said Zimmer, who has studied Griffin’s iZone efforts. “One of the things she told us while she was at the iZone was that early wins were needed to build momentum early on improving performance. She’s walking into a different situation with the ASD, there are no early wins. It’s a tall task, but she certainly deserves a chance to achieve it.”

But some Memphis residents are saying Griffin’s appointment is too little, too late. Jerry Wilson’s Frayser neighborhood in Memphis is home to nine schools in the state district, three of which are run directly by the state.

“Initially you can say it takes time, but after six or seven years, you can’t say that anymore,” said Wilson, the pastor at Faith Church Methodist Church and former Frayser Neighborhood Council president. “It is what it is. You have to say: This experiment is over and these charter schools aren’t able to manage these schools and shouldn’t be getting any more money from the state to do so. The issue has always been accountability. There isn’t ultimate accountability.”

Wilson said that Griffin has a “proven track record of turning around schools,” but that structural changes need to accompany leadership changes in the district.

Despite lagging state test scores, a bright spot for the original six Achievement School District schools are their growth scores. Student growth is measured in Tennessee on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. To calculate the growth score, the state compares a student’s performance to the performance of his or her peers who have performed similarly on past assessments, according to the state.

While the Achievement School District scored in the lowest level of student growth as a district, Corning, Frayser, and Lester elementaries scored a 3, and Brick Church scored a 4.

“Turning around schools is really difficult, especially schools in some of our most challenging neighborhoods,” Haslam said. “The key thing [for the next governor] is to decide what you want to do, get the right leaders in place, and stay the course … I think we have a great leader now who is a product of Memphis schools.”

Note: This is the first time there is year-over-year TNReady data for the Achievement School District. There are no scores for the 2015-2016 school year because tests for middle and elementary schools were cancelled across the state after a series of logistical and technical challenges. And comparing the last two years of TNReady results to state tests prior to 2015 would be like comparing apples and oranges, because Tennessee moved to a new, more rigorous state test in 2015.

Graphics by Sam Park.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: