Subgroup Improvement: Closing Achievement "Gaps" in Knox Schools

I have been impressed with the Knox County school system and its leadership since Jim McIntyre became superintendent in 2008. So I was surprised that the McIntyre-led system failed to make a list of 21 "Exemplary School Districts" recently announced by the state Department of Education.

This recognition was based on student achievement gains this past school year as measured by TCAP test scores in grades three through eight and high school end-of-course exams. While Knox County Schools (KCS) had overall achievement gains in all of the above that met or exceeded state benchmarks, it fell short by a new set of standards the state adopted early this year. These are aimed at narrowing the achievement "gap" between all students and various subgroups of disadvantaged students, and Knox County wasn't deemed to have made sufficient progress on what's called the "gap closure" front.

The shortfalls weren't severe enough to put KCS on a tainted list of 54 school districts (out of a state total of 136) that were designated as "in need of subgroup improvement." But the sheer fact that the state is now focusing on this need should serve as a spur to all to improve performance of struggling students who mostly fall into one or another of the subgroups.

The impetus for this focus stems from the basis on which Tennessee obtained a waiver from compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The NCLB's impossible-to-reach standard of proficiency for all students by 2014 included sanctions for schools and systems that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress toward this goal. In a vain and misguided attempt to do so, Tennessee dumbed down its definition of proficiency to the point where its purported statewide reading proficiency of 87 percent in 2007 had the biggest disparity of any state in the country compared to the National Assessment of Educational Progress measure of 26 percent proficiency.

To rectify this situation, under the leadership of then Gov. Phil Bredesen, the state prescribed a much more rigorous curriculum adhering to what's known as the Common Core that 46 states have now adopted. The TCAP bar was raised accordingly, and statewide test scores plummeted; in the case of 7th grade math for example, from 90.3 percent proficient in 2009 to 28.5 percent in 2010.

The recovery since then has brought statewide TCAP proficiency back up to 47.3 percent for math and 49.9 percent for reading. Knox County exceeds that with 52.1 percent for math and 57.1 percent for reading, but they obviously have a long way to go to make good on McIntyre's catchphrase, which is "Excellence for All Children."

Under Tennessee's waiver from NCLB, the state has prescribed new standards for achievement gains that seem more realistic. Each school district is expected to achieve a 20 percent increase in its overall proficiency levels over five years at a pace of 3 to 5 percent a year. At the same time, districts are mandated to cut the gap between their overall achievement rate and those of disadvantaged subgroups of students in half over eight years. Arithmetically, that works out to 6.25 percent each year, which is the amount by which their boats must be lifted faster than the rising tide.

The subgroups include minorities (encompassing African American, Hispanic, and Native American students), the economically disadvantaged (defined to mean the surprisingly high 45 percent of Knox students that are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program), special education students, and English language learners.

Also surprising is the fact that Knox County Schools have some of the widest gaps in the state. Only a handful of mostly smaller districts exceed the Knox differential of more than 30 percentage points between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students in both math and reading. The same holds for the gaps of well over 20 percentage points between minorities and the student population as a whole.

School officials don't have a ready explanation for why KCS' gaps are significantly wider than most other large school systems as well as most surrounding counties. But they do have a number of strategies in place for seeking to improve the performance of struggling students regardless of whether they are in subgroups.

"We are targeting any kids who need interventions, and we know we need to grow those kids faster to get them caught up to grade level," says Elizabeth Alves, acting assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "Every elementary school now has at least a part-time literacy coach, and many have both full-time literacy and numeracy [math] coaches," she relates. The coaches work both with struggling students in small groups and with teachers who are struggling to meet their needs.

A first-grade literacy intervention program known as Voyager Passport, which was piloted last school year in five schools, achieved remarkable results. By one measure, the percent of students reading at or above grade level jumped from 22 to 87. This year, Voyager Passport is being expanded to 15 schools, essentially all of those where overall reading proficiency has been running below 25 percent, and it's also being extended to cover grades one through five. A longer kindergarten day at all schools starting this year will also pay big dividends over time, Alves believes.

More after-school tutoring, a new summer bridge program to help kids transition from elementary to middle school, and prospectively more us of instructional technology are all part of the mix, but unfortunately I've run out of space to elaborate.

So how realistic does Alves believe it is to cut the gaps in half? "If we're going to achieve excellence for all children, then that has to be our goal," she says, adding that "As long as we're doing everything we can to grow kids to their capacity, that's all that we can do."