Tennessee's New School Accountability System Sets More Attainable Goals for Struggling Schools

Last month saw the release of Knox County Schools' "grades" for the first time under Tennessee's newly created school accountability system, which replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The good news is that 10 local schools were named "reward schools"—among the top 5 percent highest-performing or improving schools. And only one school was named a "priority school"— among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. But what does this really mean, and how does it compare to the NCLB ratings?

Last November, the Tennessee Department of Education requested and obtained a waiver from the NCLB program, the federal school accountability system, in order to find a better way to measure schools' success. Tennessee was the first state to receive the waiver in February. Since that waiver was granted, 38 states have received a waiver or requested one. The state's new accountability program puts less emphasis on rigid targets that proved difficult to achieve under NCLB and more on growth in individual schools and school districts. The federal government set the outline for the new system, but the Tennessee Department of Education is in charge of implementing it.

The No Child Left Behind program, implemented by former President George W. Bush in 2001, was supposed to make sure every child was proficient in math and reading by 2014. Schools were supposed to teach their students well enough so that they all passed with flying colors on yearly state exams. And that just wasn't happening at schools like Austin-East Magnet High School. Schools that failed to meet yearly benchmarks set by NCLB were placed into two categories: target schools and high-priority schools. Target schools fail to meet at least one benchmark. Missing the same benchmark two years in a row will land schools on the high-priority list. Once placed on the high-priority list, schools must meet the adequate yearly progress targets set by NCLB for two years in order to get back to good standing.

At the end of the 2010-2011 school year, 30 percent of students at Austin-East were "below basic" in state math test scores, and 16 percent were at the same level in reading and language arts test scores. Additionally, 570 of its 645 students were "economically disadvantaged," which was the highest percentage of any Knox County high school.

The school had already gone through several classifications under NCLB. The Department of Education designated it first a "Targeted Assistance" school in 2003, and "Corrective Action" in 2006. The graduation rate in 2007 was below 70 percent, while the government mandates a 90 percent rate. This year, Austin-East is a "focus school"—among the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students.

Elizabeth Alves, the acting superintendent of curriculum and instruction, says that yearly increase in schools falling behind was because of the extremely high, unattainable standards set by NCLB. Under that program, 83 percent of students would have to be proficient in reading and language arts after the 2011-2012 school year. Additionally, 80 percent would have to be proficient in math. Tennessee schools were not meeting those standards across the board, and disadvantaged schools were hit hard by that standard.

Alves says that's because there was no way to account for growth in individual schools, even if that growth didn't meet NCLB standards.

"It was the same target no matter how far away from it we were," Alves says.

During the 2007-2008 school year, there were 172 target schools and 135 high priority schools in Tennessee. By the 2010-11 year, the number of schools considered "targets" increased to 209, and high-priority schools were up to 186. Something was obviously not working.

But the downward spiral schools like Austin-East found themselves in as the national targets continued to rise without regard to any other measure of student achievement came closer to correcting itself with the waiver of NCLB standards. In Knox County, Alves says schools will be expected to show 3-5 percent growth each year, depending on where students are performing now. That's a much more realistic goal, she says, and much more attainable than the NCLB goal of having every student proficient in math and reading by 2014. In addition, the schools' growth will contribute to the school district's ranking come next year.

A focus school like Austin-East could perform well overall, but have weak groups in terms of performance compared to the rest of the school. The state asks that focus schools address the gap by implementing programs for specific subgroups of students (based on categories like race or socio-economic status), applying for grants aimed at closing achievement gaps, and using state resources where necessary to help fund programs to encourage growth in the targeted subgroups.

Achievement gaps have posed a problem for Knox County schools. NCLB didn't allow schools to account for achievement gaps, Alves says, which occur when subgroups of students perform better or worse than others in the school.

"We've never really looked at the differences between our highest-performing and our lowest-performing students," Alves says.

That changes under the new accountability system also, which calls for schools to close the achievement gaps by half over the next eight years. Alves says that although the district as a whole met all of its achievement targets, it missed 12 out of 16 achievement gap closure targets after the 2011-2012 school year. She says grants available to focus schools could help achieve more of those gap closure targets by the end of the current school year.

There was only one priority school in Knox County (and only 83 statewide): Sarah Moore Greene Elementary. Priority schools (in the bottom 5 percent of schools for overall performance) must show growth over three school years to be removed from that category. Priority schools are also eligible for grants to improve test scores. Sarah Moore Greene has received funds from the Great Schools Partnership grant, and has hired a literacy coach, a numeracy coach (for help in math), and a first-grade early literacy coach. Those coaches are there to help teachers give specialized attention to students who may need an extra boost in learning to read and do math. Nancy Maland, the executive director of elementary education, says the coaches are part of an effort to coordinate the resources Sarah Moore Greene has available to more effectively improve the students' test scores.

"I think it's really important to have [resources] coordinated and focused on the same goals," Maland says.

Alves agrees, and is positive about the school's outlook

"We've taken some important steps [at Sarah Moore Greene]," Alves says. In addition to a new principal, instructional assistants were hired with grant funds to help teachers work closely with smaller groups of students. Teachers there are also being taught new teaching strategies for more efficient time use. "I think we put the right focus on instruction," Alves says.

Maland says the effort to make progress at Sarah Moore Greene is an "all-hands-on-deck endeavor," focused on moving the kids forward in their academic achievement over the next three years and beyond.

"We realize it's going to take many hands... to provide the best for the boys and girls," Maland says.