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Five things to look for in this year’s school-level TCAP scores

Alan Petersime

When the state releases its third and final set of test scores for 2014 on Tuesday, it will finally reveal how students at individual schools fared on this year’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP.

In July, the state announced broad trends for the year, revealing that test scores overall crept up this year. Three weeks ago, it unveiled scores by district, showing that Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District had made gains but continue to lag behind the rest of the state.

Now, it is releasing data about individual schools’ performance — a measure that has high stakes for schools, educators, and communities.

The state uses school-level scores to decide which schools to take over or otherwise overhaul, and districts use the scores to decide which schools to close. By law, test scores must also factor in teacher and principal evaluations, and school-wide scores are used to rate teachers in subjects where there is no single state test.

Critics of the state education department say too much emphasis has been placed on test scores. But while the scores certainly don’t tell us everything about what’s happening inside of individual schools, they do forecast where we can expect the state’s and districts’ attention to be focused in the next few years. They also point to differences in how much individual schools put test scores first.

Here are a few things we’ll be looking out for in this round of data:

1. Which schools will land on the state’s second-ever “priority list”?

The state is using this year’s scores to revamp its list of schools in the bottom 5 percent in the state. That list, known as the “priority list,” was first calculated three years ago based on schools’ proficiency rates in reading, math, and science (the formula for high schools includes graduation rate). Any school on the list is eligible to be taken over by the state-run ASD. Several districts, including Nashville and Shelby County Schools, use the scores to determine which schools will be subject to dramatic turnarounds as part of their Innovation Zones.

It will be interesting to where the schools on the list will be: Sixty-nine of the 83 schools on the last list were in Memphis, which has made the city ground zero for the ASD. But officials have hinted that this list could include more schools in other cities, including Nashville. The list will forecast where we can anticipate more takeovers, and more of the drama and strong opinions that accompany them.

And, as both Nashville and Shelby County have indicated that they may soon have charter school operators run low-performing schools, the new list will signal where charter growth is likely in coming years.

2. Did schools benefit from landing on the priority list last time?

Many of the state’s school improvement efforts have been focused on “bottom 5 percent schools,” or those on the first priority list. The new scores will offer one data point about how much those efforts have paid off. If the new “bottom 5 percent” is a higher-scoring group of schools than it was three years ago, look for the state to say that its focus on the lowest-scoring schools has raised the bar for everyone.

The school-by-school data will also show which efforts, if any, are associated with the biggest gains. Not all schools on the priority list received state or district interventions, so there will be a control group to show whether the state’s involvement lifted bottom 5 percent schools beyond where they might have gotten on their own.

3. What difference have state and local changes to how low-scoring schools are operated made for the schools?

The ASD is now in its third year running schools. The state-run district has said that results are mixed. The new scores will show which schools are doing well and which are struggling. Knowing that, we’ll then be able to ask why.

In addition, both Nashville and Shelby County created Innovation Zones, funded by federal grants, to prove that they could improve schools in their own districts without handing them over to the state. Last year, Shelby County’s I-Zone outperformed the state’s ASD. The new scores will show whether I-Zone schools sustained those gains.

One unexpected side effect of the I-Zone, according to Shelby County officials, is that schools that lost staff to I-Zone schools are struggling. The school-level scores will show whether the struggles registered on testing day. If so, it hints at a bigger challenge for districts: How do you make sure you’re really improving all schools, not just shuffling around successful educators?

4. What do individual schools’ scores suggest for Memphis’s new municipal districts?

Six municipal districts split off from the recently merged Shelby County Schools district. The school-level results will give us a peek about how schools within each of the new districts are doing, and whether we will soon be seeing a more stratified Shelby County, where students in some of the smaller — and more affluent — districts are scoring notably higher than others.

5. How’s Shelby County doing in reading and math? Which schools are leading the pack?

Shelby County Schools has set a goal to raise academics and graduation rates throughout the district. Its biggest focus is on literacy. The school-level scores will show us which schools in the district are on track to meet those goals.

We’ll keep an eye out for schools that made larger-than-expected. Who’s got reading programs worth learning from? Where are high schoolers acing their algebra exams? What can schools learn from those leaders and teachers?

And we’ll also be on the lookout for schools that made even less improvement than the district as a whole. Figuring out what’s happening inside those buildings could offer clues about the challenges ahead for efforts to bring improvements.

What else should we be looking for in the school-level test scores? Let us know in the comments section.

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