Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is showing that our students can rise to incredible challenges and expectations and prove what so many of us believe is possible.
Admittedly, during its first two years, student test scores were uneven and raised doubts about ASD’s ability to turnaround student success. Now, in its third year—while not every school produced off-the-charts results—student test scores are in, and they are promising.
It’s been a bumpy ride since the state created the ASD three years ago, in order to quickly and dramatically turn around 22 of the state’s lowest performing schools. ASD did not set its sight on incremental improvement here, but rather on wildly ambitious progress—moving the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee to the top 25 percent.
As a former teacher who often worked with high school students who were consistently years behind in reading, I know that changing students’ academic trajectories is time-intensive work that does not always happen in one urgent year. But I believe it can happen.
I’m personally encouraged by these latest results—even if analysis suggests there is still some unevenness in the scores—because it demonstrates what is possible when we believe that all students can soar given the support and the structure of high expectations.
The results aren’t perfect, but the scores are moving in the right direction for schools that have been struggling for years. ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, said it best about the simple principle that has guided their work: “We believe in kids and teachers.”
It’s this sort of aspirational belief that not only increases test scores (which admittedly are still just one measure of a child’s progress) but changes students’ lives and educational opportunities.
In addition to recent test scores, the ASD was the only “entity in the country” that got top marks in every category on a 2013 report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
Because of ASD, 4,500 fewer students are attending the worst schools in Memphis.
Expulsions dropped 80 percent in their schools, while suspensions fell by 25 percent. According to student survey data, students overwhelmingly reported feeling safe in school and proud of their schools.
People have doubted the ASD’s goals since the district’s inception; not all believed that such a lofty aim was possible for the lowest-performing schools in the state. But now, schools in their second and third year (like the Memphis Frayser community) are starting to show that these goals are attainable.
Schools that have been in the district for two to three years (as opposed to one) are earning a Level 5 on the state’s measure of progress—the highest possible growth a school can earn.
Other schools are boasting double-digit gains and outpacing peers in math and science. Indeed, reading scores are still uneven: There is work to be done still, and as a former English teacher, I deeply understand the unique challenges that come with teaching reading. Yet, according to the ASD’s deputy superintendent, research shows that these scores tend to “lag behind” other subjects and schools are prioritizing this as a focus area moving forward.
It’s easy to look at these results and resort to the familiar outcry often heard from critics: Test scores aren’t everything. That’s true, but they are one crucial piece that demonstrates the progress of an ambitious turnaround effort that could open countless doors for students across Tennessee.