Achievement School District

Report cites Achievement School District’s test focus and diverse school choices

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students and their teacher on the first day of school in 2014 at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized in Memphis by the state's Achievement School District

Tennessee’s unique Achievement School District (ASD), which seeks to turn around the state’s bottom 5 percent of public schools, would be impacted more directly than locally operated school districts if the state again changes its academic standards and assessments, according to a new report.

That’s because, by its very nature, the ASD is “extremely test-driven,” explains Joshua Glazer, a George Washington University researcher who co-authored the report based on an ongoing study conducted with researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

While decisions about all schools in Tennessee are tied to test scores, test scores are the primary reason for the existence of the ASD, which the state created in 2011 to push Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools to become part of its top 25 percent of schools within five years. Performance is measured wholly by test scores – making ASD schools particularly affected by state-mandated changes to standards and assessments, Glazer noted.

Currently, the state’s Common Core State Standards – which set annual benchmarks for what students should know in math and language arts – are under review by the state, and some lawmakers have filed bills in the legislature that would scrap them altogether.

The ASD study was initiated to explore how students’ educational experiences are impacted by the state-run Achievement School District, which works under an ambitious turnaround goal for academic performance; an emphasis on autonomy and accountability geared toward innovation; and an unusual system of governance in U.S. education. The study was funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation and supported by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The resulting report notes the diverse array of schooling choices that have quickly developed under the ASD’s oversight, with designs that reflect fundamental differences in providers’ philosophy and approach to teaching and learning. However, the report also says that questions remain about whether these divergent approaches will flourish and stabilize over time.

The report lauds the unified sense of mission shared by the ASD and its operators but also cautions that its focus on testing might cause officials to lose sight of nuances that cannot be measured by tests.

The Achievement School District currently operates or authorizes 23 charter schools in Memphis and Nashville, and Glazer reports that many are focused on measuring success with the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, the standardized achievement tests that are being phased out next school year as the state ushers in a new assessment aligned with the Common Core State Standards. To keep pace next school year with the new assessment, which is being developed to align with the 4-year-old Common Core State Standards, ASD schools will have to significantly shift their measurement approach, Glazer says. Conversely, ASD schools that have built their designs around the new Common Core State Standards might have to rework curricula and practices if the state legislature votes this year to back away from the standards.

The focus on tests may cause ASD leaders to lose sight of successes by the district’s charter operators that cannot be measured by assessments alone, according to the report’s authors.

“There are fundamental differences among the providers — not just tactical or strategic differences, but really different underlying ideas about what is important in an education,” Glazer told Chalkbeat. “The point that we’re trying to make is that there are some things about these providers that just won’t be picked up by tests.”

For instance, it’s difficult to infer from tests alone what combination of student demographics and mobility, teaching styles, and curriculum are impacting student learning.

ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley said the report provides helpful information and feedback to the state-run school district. “They really got us thinking about what we incentivize,” he said.

Smalley said ASD administrators consider financial, academic and operational matters when taking stock of their schools but believe a substantial focus on test scores is appropriate. “We can’t measure everything that matters, and have to decide where the greatest leverage is,” he said. “With that in mind, we’ve decided that the greatest leverage is in objective measures of student learning.”

Here are other takeaways outlined in the report:

  • Currently, charter operators authorized by the ASD meet annually to exchange ideas during meetings called “school practice reviews.” While the report’s authors applaud the intent behind the reviews, they found little evidence that these exchanges of ideas actually have prompted changes in practices. “The ASD is competitive — a little bit survival-of-the-fittest — by design,” Glazer said. “That does not make it easy to have frank conversations [among schools].”
  • The report notes a shared sense of mission and choice-based ideology among ASD administrators  and its school operators. “The emphasis on autonomy and the aversion to bureaucracy represent a philosophy that is deeply felt by ASD managers, many of whom themselves are products of the charter movement where such ideas are sacrosanct,” the report says. Glazer said this unified philosophy differentiates the ASD from almost any other school system — and could lead to more efficient decision-making. “It doesn’t mean they don’t have arguments or debates,” he said. “But it could contribute to efficiency. … A very strong unity of mission can only help.”
  • Overall, the report is optimistic about the ASD’s future. “The ASD is still in its infancy, and the time, energy, and wherewithal needed to support this type of learning community may emerge with time,” the report concludes. “The tensions we describe stem from their heroic effort to foster an environment where autonomy, diversity, strong outcome accountability and organizational learning contribute to dramatic improvements in student learning in schools with a long history of failure and poor performance. We hope that unearthing these tensions and holding up a mirror will help the ASD and others seeking to embark on similar tasks to accomplish their goals.”

Read the entire report here:

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”