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Mixed results for ASD in second year running schools

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.
Kyle Kurlick

The state-run Achievement School District (ASD) reversed a decline in the percent of students who passed a state reading test and saw growth in its math scores in its second year running some of Tennessee’s most challenged schools. But reading scores in those schools are still lower than they were before the state intervened.

The ASD has been expanding quickly since it first started running schools in 2012. It has been touted as a promising approach for states looking to improve their lowest-performing schools.

But its results so far, and its progress toward its self-set goal of bringing each of its schools from the bottom 5 percent into the top 25 percent in the state within five years, have been decidedly mixed.

The stakes are high for schools, students, teachers and staff: The district will use the test scores to help determine which of its turnaround efforts and charter school operators are most effective. Schools that do not meet their targets after three years in the ASD are eligible to be turned over yet again to a different charter operator.

“All our schools have three years to be on track, and if not, we’re going to replace charter operators. If it’s direct run, we’ll replace ourselves with a high-performing charter,” said Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD.

The ASD ran six schools in 2012-13 and 17 in 2013-14, and plans to run 23 in the coming school year. All but one are in Memphis. Schools that are taken over by the ASD either become charter schools or are run directly by the ASD, and get new staff, curriculum, and control over their schedules and budgets. The ASD also starts new charter schools.

This year’s district-level scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), released today by the state, don’t reveal which schools are on target. So far, Barbic says, three of the six schools the district has run for two years, including charters and direct-run schools, are on track to be in the top 25 percent in the state within five years. Which schools have achieved that benchmark will be determined by a mix of test scores, graduation rates, and other factors.

Only the scores for schools that have been part of the district for two years are used to gauge how well the district is doing according to state accountability guidelines. This year’s scores count as a new baseline for schools that were just added to the ASD last fall.

In the set of six schools the ASD has run for two years, the percent of students who scored proficient or above in reading in grades 3-8 increased from 13.4 percent to 17 percent. But reading scores for those six schools are still not as high as they were the year before the district took over the district, when 18.1 percent of students scored proficient.

The percent of students proficient in math in grades 3-8 in the second-year schools increased from 19.6 to 21.8 percent.

In the 11 schools that became part of the ASD in 2013, 21.5 percent of students scored proficient in math and 22.3 percent of students scored proficient in reading. Those scores are now the “baseline” from which future performance will be judged by the state.

Statewide, 49.5 percent of students overall and 37 percent of the state’s low-income students scored proficient or advanced in reading in grades 3-8. In math, 51.3 percent of students and 38 percent of low-income students scored proficient or advanced. In 2013-14, the lowest score a school could earn and still be ranked in the top quartile was 63.8 percent in math and 61.5 percent in reading language arts, according to Elliot Smalley, a spokesman for the ASD.

The brightest spot for the ASD is the district’s two new high schools: 44.9 percent of high schoolers were proficient or above in Algebra 1, compared to 62 percent statewide, and 56.6 were proficient in English I, compared to 71 percent statewide. That represents a 24.2 percentage point gain in Algebra I and a 42.4 percentage point gain in English I. The ASD operated two high schools in 2013-14, both of which only enrolled ninth graders.

Scores from the district’s alternative school, Pathways in Education, were not included in the district-wide data as the school just opened in January.

Observers in Frayser, where the ASD runs six schools, were less interested in the district’s overall scores than in hearing how high-flying schools were achieving their results.

“We really want to know what’s working and what’s not, and if you have something working, how do you take that and use it at other schools to help students move up?” said Sonya Smith, the chair of the education commission for the Frayser Neighborhood Council who has reviewed the test results.

That school-level data and the state’s new priority list will be released in August.

Barbic pointed to some trends. For instance, he said that schools that had been “phased in”—that is, the school was taken over grade by grade rather than all at once—seemed to be faring better than schools that are taken over all at once. “If it looks like this is in the best interest of kids, we’re going to continue to do that,” Barbic said. Three of the ten schools closed by Shelby County were ASD “phase in” schools.

The ASD’s scores will likely be compared to the performance of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a federally-funded turnaround effort. Last year, Shelby County’s Innovation Zone outperformed the ASD on state tests. The Innovation Zone schools’ results will be released with school-level data in August.

Shelby County board member Shante Avant said earlier this year that in-district school improvement efforts such as the Innovation Zone outperform the ASD, state policymakers might reconsider whether the new state district is the best approach. State education commissioner Kevin Huffman said this spring that he believes the ASD will be a permanent part of the state’s education department.

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