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.

the grades are in

Search for your Indiana school’s 2018 A-F grades

PHOTO: Andersen Ross/Getty Images

Indiana schools’ 2018 A-F grades were released Wednesday, and most schools have two grades this year.

One grade is the usual annual rating from the state, which is mainly based on test scores and how much scores improve. These ratings can trigger intervention for schools receiving F grades several years in a row.

The other grade, which is new this year, comes from new federal standards under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This rating looks at how public schools serve students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with disabilities.

The state measured schools more generously than the federal standards: Nearly two-thirds of schools received As or Bs under the Indiana system. About a third of schools received a higher letter grade in the state system than under federal standards.

Read more: Many Indiana schools receive F grades for how they serve students of color and those with disabilities

Read more: How many Indiana schools got As in 2018? Depends if state or feds are doing the grading.

Most schools didn’t see a change in their state grade from last year, a trend that continues because test scores remain largely stagnant.

New schools and schools that join the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network can opt to be graded by the state for three years based only on how much their test scores improve — a measure known as growth — without factoring in passing rates.

Find your school’s A-F grades in our searchable database below.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.