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Five things to watch for when district and school test scores come out Wednesday

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam present statewide TCAP results for 2015 in early July. For the most part, scores went up statewide. But at individual schools, it can be hard to explain why.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam present statewide TCAP results for 2015 in early July. For the most part, scores went up statewide. But at individual schools, it can be hard to explain why.
G. Tatter

For six schools in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the day of reckoning has almost arrived.

Chris Barbic, the founding superintendent of the state-run school turnaround district, always told operators that they had three years to improve test scores at the public schools they took over from local districts, or they would be replaced — even if the operator in question is the Achievement School District (ASD).

This year marked completion of the third operating year for those initial schools and, on Wednesday, the state will release their long-awaited achievement test scores. For many, those scores will serve as a referendum on the school improvement initiative that now has wrested control of 29 struggling schools from their local districts in Memphis and Nashville, and instituted major interventions in an effort to vault them from the bottom to the top.In addition to the ASD’s scores, the state is unveiling its district-by-district and school-by-school K-12 scores across the state, one month after releasing statewide achievement scores that showed gains in high school and math, but stagnant reading scores.Here are five things to watch amidst the newest flurry of numbers:1. The ASD, while still young, is reaching an age of accountability — with outcomes being closely watched in Tennessee and across the nation.The success (or not) of the ASD has generated intrigue beyond Tennessee’s borders, with at least four states poised to launch similar large-scale school turnaround programs modeled in part on Tennessee’s. The ASD’s goal is to move schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years of intervening. Thus, the district’s first six schools — three run directly by the ASD and three by charter operators — should be more than halfway there. If progress is made, it will affirm the tactic of removing low-performing schools from local district control and converting them into charters — the ASD’s primary vehicle for school turnaround. If the scores are lackluster, though, critics and some observers say it may be time to try something else. Last year’s ASD scores were a mixed bag, with growth in math scores, but reading scores still lagging behind their pre-takeover levels.When Barbic announced earlier this month his plan to exit the ASD at the end of the year, he shared his thoughts on why progress has been slower than he had hoped. “Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment,” said Barbic, who led Houston-based YES Prep, a charter organization lauded for its academic success, prior to moving to Tennessee to lead the ASD. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”If any of the ASD’s first six schools don’t improve their test scores for the second year in a row, they will reenter the conversion process, which will begin in August.2. Further gains are expected in Shelby County’s Innovation Zone. Most Memphis-area students attend schools within Shelby County Schools, a district that has been rocked by the enrollment and funding decreases induced by the ASD’s ascendance, other new charter schools, and the break-off of six suburban municipal districts. Thus, comparing this year’s overall scores to last year’s will only offer a snapshot of how the district is faring during tumultuous times. An exception has been the district’s iZone — a group of low-performing schools that have received extra support and charter school-like flexibility. This year as last, the iZone is expected to be hailed as the source for any gains that the school district sees. Also worth watching will be how schools within the iZone compare with schools operated by the ASD. In the past, the iZone has outpaced the ASD in student achievement growth.3. Elsewhere in Shelby County, six new municipal districts will see their first year of scores, providing a benchmark for years to come. Six small districts split from Shelby County Schools a year ago, only two years after Memphis City Schools merged with the former county system. Supporters of the hasty de-merger argued the new systems would benefit their communities by boosting local control, increasing efficiency, and bringing more employers to Shelby County by raising the quality of local schools. Wednesday’s scores will offer insight into whether the municipal districts are indeed better off than they were pre-merger — and if students remaining in Shelby County Schools fare any worse.4. In Nashville, scores will help set the agenda for the district’s next set of leaders — whomever they may be. Nashville has long played second fiddle to Memphis as the urban district to watch in Tennessee’s turnaround efforts, in large part because fewer of its schools were in the bottom 5 percent when the state generated its first “priority list” in 2012. The ASD is opening its second school in Nashville in the coming weeks, and Nashvillians are concerned and anxious to see which of their city’s schools might next come under the ASD’s control. While the next priority list won’t be released until 2017, the school-level scores will offer an early glimpse of which schools might end up available for placement in the ASD, or in Nashville’s own iZone, which has not posted gains as high as its counterpart in Memphis. In addition, this year’s scores will offer fodder for mayoral and city council candidates up for votes next week in elections in which education is proving to be an important issue. The scores also will signal the scope of the challenges ahead for the district’s next superintendent, whenever one is hired.5. School-level scores tell us more than district-level schools. Big increases or decreases in district scores — and not just urban — are worth watching, because they can indicate small-scale efforts that are paying off or falling flat, demographic shifts that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, or even cheating. But at the end of day, individual schools or smaller groups of schools in a district, like the iZone, tell a more important story. Joshua Glazer, a George Washington University researcher who is leading a multiple-year study on the ASD, says district scores can be misleading because the district is “an umbrella for multiple programs.” Charter operators, turnaround methods and instructional models at each school vary greatly. And, he added, because the ASD is constantly adding Tennessee’s lowest performing schools under its umbrella, their averages always will be low. Similarly, in smaller, rural districts, a few low-performing schools can drag down averages — and in larger districts, a handful of high-performing schools with effective programming might barely make a dent.Disclaimer: Test scores don’t tell you everything. No educator believes that the test scores or growth data being released this week tell the whole story about a district or a school. “It’s a big mistake to only look at test scores,” Glazer said. If you really want to judge the quality of a school, look not only at test scores, but at attendance and discipline data, teacher and principal turnover, and student and parent satisfaction. “You can get test scores up with pretty lousy teachers,” he said.

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