Burdened by higher achievement standards, Metro Nashville Public Schools has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but considerations for the city’s historic flood spared the district from facing severe consequences.
The results, which the Tennessee Department of Education released Friday, are a reflection of last year’s test scores. MNPS, along with the school districts in Murfreesboro and Knox County, are categorized as “high-priority.” In all, the state has targeted 33 Metro schools.
“There are no quick fixes,” Director of Schools Jesse Register said. “We have to improve the quality of instruction in every classroom in every school in the school district. We have a whole comprehensive set of strategies for doing that.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” he said.
Typically, the inability to meet testing benchmarks moves a school system to a more stringent classification of the controversial federal law. However, MNPS and 14 other school districts were granted a special natural disaster waiver from the state for the May floods, which has effectively frozen the district’s status at “Restructuring I.”
Improved scores next year would move the school district to “good standing,” but another round of failure would redirect it to “Restructuring II,” which allows for the alternative governance of districts. Last year, the district made adequate progress, snapping a six-year streak of failure.
Metro schools officials say they have data that suggests the district was on track to surpass the benchmarks. They say the disruption caused by the floods, which changed testing dates and produced trauma among students, threw the progress off course.
“We believe very strongly that our district was on track to make AYP this year, and to be moved into good standing, had we not been interrupted by the flood,” Register said.
According to Register, the school district applied for the one-year natural disaster waiver a few weeks ago.
“Frankly, I was surprised to hear that there were 14 other systems in the state of Tennessee that were granted the same status,” Register said. “I didn’t realize the flood was that far-reaching. It had a definite effect on us for hundreds of students, staff and our schools."
Elementary- and middle-school demographic categories that didn’t meet benchmarks were African-American students in math, students with disabilities in reading/language arts, and English Language Learners in both subjects. As a whole, the district’s elementary- and middle-school students met reading and math benchmarks.
Meanwhile, Metro’s high school students made adequate progress in math. However, students with disabilities and English Language Learners missed the benchmarks in reading and language arts.
Metro schools officials say the district was left with a “triple jump” when factoring in the new ways tests were evaluated.
In addition to the increase in academic standards, Register said student scores required an added proficiency increase. He also said the state moved to using “single-year data only,” as opposed to taking two- and three-year averages of test scores, as previously used by the state.
On a positive note, which Register and his administration are trying their best to highlight, the district’s graduation rate improved to 82.9, a near 10 percent jump.
Some in Nashville’s education community are understanding of the challenges inherent in an urban school district and are encouraged by Register’s reform strategy, known as “MNPS Achieves.”
School board chair Gracie Porter said she believes the district is making progress. “I want our kids to learn in the process,” she said. “Not to take a test just to take a test. I want to see learning, and I think with the reformation progress that we’re making, I think we’re on a good roll.”
Francie Hunt, director of the advocacy group Stand for Children, said her organization recognizes the significantly higher academic standards that played a role in the district's failure this year.
“However, we welcome this necessary, honest assessment to ensure that all of our students are ultimately prepared for college, work and life as adults,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s not just what is on paper [but] rather what is happening in the classroom to support student learning. That is where we must focus our attention.”