Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: Frayser 9GA, the Miracle School of the Achievement School District

The Achievement School District of Tennessee, or ASD, was modeled after the Louisiana Recovery School District, or RSD.  The superintendent of the ASD is a friend of mine from my days as a TFAer in Houston, Chris Barbic.  The goal of the ASD is to take over the schools in the bottom 5% in terms of test scores in the state and within five years get the scores up so those same schools are in the top 25%.  The schools, as I originally understood it, would have the same zoned students after the were taken over by (they use the euphemism ‘matched with’) the usual suspects of TFA charter chains, like KIPP and Rocketship.  The first cohort of the ASD was 6 schools started in the 2012-2013 school year.  This grew to 17 schools in 2013-2014, and now 23 schools for 2014-2015.  I was skeptical of this plan from the beginning.  As I wrote to Chris in one of my open letters, still unanswered, I felt like this was a goal that can only be achieved by some sort of cheating or lying.  One cheat that is happening is that many of the charter schools did not take over existing schools but became new schools which phased in one grade at a time.  This makes it pretty hard to say that a school that never existed was originally in the bottom 5% of schools.

As reformers are all about accountability and data, the ASD, of course, issues yearly reports about the progress that it is making toward the goal of moving the schools in the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five years.  This year Tennessee has been very slow in releasing their state test scores.  In early July they first released data for the State.  On these, the average scores in the state were not very good.  On average, as I wrote about here, 3-8 math scores went up by a percent while 3-8 reading scores went down by a percent.  At the end of July they released the data for the individual districts.  In that release, we learned that the ASD scores increased more than the state averages.  I wrote here, about how that really wasn’t saying very much, particularly since the 4% the ASD reading scores had gone up by still meant that the 2013-2014 reading scores were lower than the 2011-2012 ASD reading scores.  Then, in August, they finally released the final part of their data, the ‘growth’ scores of the districts and the test scores and growth scores for the individual schools.

A year ago the ASD, despite the fact that their reading scores dropped by almost 5%, somehow scored the highest possible score, a 5 out of 5 on the Tennessee ‘growth’ metric.  This was, they said, a sign that things were moving in the right direction.  This year, however, despite the fact that at the end of July we learned that the ASD ‘grew’ better than the state did in general, the final report in mid-August revealed that the ASD didn’t get another 5 in ‘growth.’  For the 2013-2014 school year, they got the lowest possible growth score, a 1.

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You’d think that this would damper their spirits, but as they’ve got to show that they’re still on track to reach the goal of moving the schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25%, they released a report highlighting some of their successes.  It turns out that some of the schools are doing quite well while others are bringing down the growth average.

They even produced this nifty scatter plot showing how some of the schools are well on their way to cracking the top 25%.

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So, according to this graph, there are four schools that are really moving up the charts, and one of them, oh my! Frayser 9GA is way up there, having moved from the bottom 5%, apparently, to nearly the top 50%!  Most of of the other schools haven’t made much movement, however.  In the ASD report, there were some graphs showing how different schools ‘grew’ from last year to this year.

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So there are schools getting it done, like Frayser 9GA, and other schools that are still failing, like, say, Westside Achievement Middle School, with its declining scores in both categories.

So I did what no Tennessee education reporters have the ingenuity to do, I did some research and analysis.  The first thing I noticed was the fine print at the bottom of the scatter plot showing the movement of some of the schools.

Notes:  1-yr success rates; 2014 percentile calculations based on 2013 data;  Carver and Frayser HS used for historical data for GRAD and F9GA, respectively.

Hmmmmm.  What does that mean?  So I investigated further.  What I learned is that Frayser 9GA isn’t, technically, a school for which it is possible to calculate the growth between 2013 and 2014.  Also, it is debatable, if it can be counted as a school at all.  Here’s why:

Westside Achievement Middle school, the one that had the dropping scores in the bar graphs above, serves students in grades 6-8.  They were one of the original 6 ASD schools in 2012-2013.  Rather than send their eighth graders to Frayser High School in 2013-2014, they decided to expand Westside Achievement Middle school to have a 9th grade in their building.  They enrolled 99 students and called the ‘school’ Frayser 9GA for ‘9th Grade Academy.’  2013-2014 was the first year that this school existed, which is why comparing their scores for their 99 9th graders to the scores of already existing Frayser high school is not a fair comparison.  This article from the local Memphis newspaper explains that 85% of the 8th grade class at Westside Achievement Achievement Middle School wanted to continue at that school for the new 9th grade program.

Now in the 2013-2014 school year, Westside Achievement Middle School dropped from a 5 on their ‘growth’ to the lowest possible 1.

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But the ASD decided to call the 9th grader program at Westside Achievement Middle School, all 99 students there, its own ‘school’ rather than what it actually is, a grade in the school.  It is not playing by the rules to pick a grade out of a school, call it its own school and then plot it on a graph as if it was an actual school that was once in the bottom 5% of schools and that with the help of the ASD catapulted to the top 50%.  So the question is, how is it that this school is failing to grow their 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in 2013-2014, yet they are getting miraculous results with their 9th graders?  And what would the score for this school be if they counted the four grades as one school rather than pulling out the 9th grade class and calling that its own school?Arne Duncan was in Tennessee today and spent time with Chris Barbic and even took a selfie with him.  Tennessee and the ASD are favorites of Duncan to tout his success.

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It is fortunate for Duncan that he will be out of office when the house of cards that is the ASD comes tumbling down, three years from now.  I’ve noticed that many reformers have been going into hiding lately:  Wendy Kopp stepped down from being CEO of TFA.  Michelle Rhee stepped down from being CEO of StudentsFirst.  Others will surely follow into the safety of their underground bunkers.  Duncan will leave office and will surely find a safe place to hide from all the questions as the reform movement continues to collapse.  What will happen to my old friend Chris Barbic when this all goes down?  He’s always been a decent guy.  I worry he might be the only one with enough principle to go down with the ship while the others cowardly abandon it.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship.