Underachievement School District 2014 Edition

The Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee is an attempt to replicate the ‘success’ of the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana.  The main difference is that while Louisiana’s RSD was set into action because of a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, Tennessee’s ASD was set into action because of a man made disaster, Hurricane Kevin Huffman, the commissioner of education in Tennessee, and an old acquaintance of mine from the days when we were both in TFA in Houston in the early 1990s.  (I was Houston 1991 and Huffman was Houston 1992).  In charge of the ASD is someone who was a good friend of mine back in Houston, Chris Barbic.  Chris started the YES chain of charter schools.

The goal of the ASD is to take the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee and in five years transform them into schools that are in the top 25% of schools in Tennessee.  As Tennessee schools are supposedly all improving at record rates, this would require that the ASD school progress at much faster rates to get from the bottom to near the top.

Last year I wrote my first annual report on the status of the ASD in a post called The Underachievement School District.  At that time, they boasted that they got the highest growth score possible, a 5 out of 5, but also revealed that their reading scores dropped from 18.1% proficient in 2012 to 13.6% proficient in 2013 while the rest of the state rose from 49.9% proficient to 50.3% proficient.  I questioned the validity of the five point growth scale based on these numbers.

The state tests in Tennessee are called the TCAPs.  This year there was a fiasco where the TCAP score release was delayed so long that schools were not able to use the scores in the student’s grades.  Tennessee is all about ‘accountability’ so this was one more straw that made parents and also Republican state legislators to call for Huffman’s resignation.

Early July 2014, I wrote about how the state released a summary of the TCAP scores.  It was revealed that 3-8 math increased by less than 1% while 3-8 reading went down by less than 1%.  Nothing to celebrate there.  Instead they focused on supposed high school ‘gains.’  This was ironic to me since Tennessee was so proud of their grade 4 and grade 8 NAEP gains yet when the 12th grade NAEP showed that Tennessee didn’t do so well there, they said that they can’t be held responsible for high schoolers since those students had most of their academic careers before the reforms set it.  So they can’t take blame when high schoolers do poorly, but they will take the credit when they do well.

Tennessee is releasing TCAP results in stages.  The big picture came out around July 4th, the school results are coming, they say, around August 15th, and the district results were released today, July 30th.  With the release of the district data, they also had some press releases telling the newspapers what to say.  In the whole country I’d say that the education reporters in Tennessee are the worst.  They just take whatever the press releases say and print that without any delving into the numbers themselves.  It is a shame I have to do their job for them, but I guess someone’s got to do it.

With the release of the district data, there are the Louisiana style invented statistics like this one:


  • From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of districts with the majority of their students proficient or advanced in 3-8 math increased from 18 percent to 57 percent.

Keep in mind that for the whole state of Tennessee, the percent of students passing 3-8 math rose about 10% from 41% to 51% between 2011 and 2014.  How this translated from 18% of districts having half the students pass to 57% having half the students pass is something that can very well happen when everyone is hovering near 50%.  It is a made up stat since there was so little to celebrate with the flat math and reading, including reading going down by about 1%.

So I was interested to see how the ASD fared.  Looking over their scores, 21.8% passing 3-8 math and 17% passing 3-8 reading, the first thing I looked for is what sort of progress they are making in going from the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five years.  Two years in and they are still in the bottom 5%, dead last with the second to last district not even close to them.  They will surely have to pick up the pace on their growth.

Then I saw this tweet

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.08.14 PM

and thought, “that’s interesting.”  The link led me to a pathetic attempt to dress up the horrible numbers posted by the ASD this year.  I went to the link and found a page with the headline “ASD Grows Faster than State in Reading and Math, High Schools Make Double Digit Gains.”

They included this bar graph showing their ‘growth’ over the past two years in math, ELA, and science.  I noticed that while they technically did ‘gain’ 3.4% in their reading scores, they are still 1.1% down from what they were in 2012.  This reminds me a bit of a guy who is gambling and you ask him how he’s doing and he says “I’m up $1,000 in the past hour without mentioning the $1500 he lost in the hour before that.”  Also these bars since they are only being compared to each other do not make it clear how low these scores really are.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.41.37 PM

But in reform, when convenient, it’s not about score it’s about ‘growth’ compared to the rest of the state.  Well since from 2013 to 2014 the whole state went down by .4% in reading, any ‘growth’ no matter how little by a district is ‘out-gaining’, as the tweets said, their peers.  And since math across the state was flat from 2013 to 2014, rising only by .6%, almost any other possible gain by a district will be better than the state.  Still it made for this impressive looking graph comparing ASD growth to state growth.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.14.38 PM

Of course the 2.2% bar is quite large the way they did their scale.  But it is accurate that the ASD had better growth than the state between 2013 and 2014.  But the ASD has been around for two years, so wouldn’t it make more sense to compare the ‘growth’ of the ASD to the whole state for the two year period.  Well, they were wise not to, but I was wise to make it for them, and here’s what it looks like:


Suddenly, it’s not so good anymore.  The ASD grew by 1.1% more than the state in that period while the ASD actually went down by .7% more than the state went down.  At this rate of losing .35% of ground each year to the state, the ASD will never get out of the bottom 5% in reading, and for math where there is a 30% difference between the ASD and the Tennessee average, if they creep up at .5% a year it will take 60 years for them to get to the 50% mark, let alone the top 25%.  Here is another graph I made that you won’t find in the press release.  The are those proficiency numbers of the ASD side by side with the Tennessee average.


This demonstrates, as much as anything how the fact that the ASD had a better 1 year ‘growth’ than the state, the two year growth is about the same and that the ASD better start ramping it up if they plan to get their schools from way way back in dead last to beating 75% of the districts in the state of Tennessee in just three years.

But there does need to be something to celebrate so the ASD made up the most outrageous statistic of all and presented it in this graph.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.41.05 PM

According to this graph it seems that ASD high schools had 42.4% ‘growth’ in English 1, 24.2% ‘growth’ in Algebra 1, and 28.9% ‘growth’ in Biology 1.  Whoah, those are big numbers.  When I went to the page with all the databases I found that there were no numbers at all for the ASD.  Other districts had ‘growths’ generally between -10% and +10%.  But why no ASD?  Then I noticed in the fine print on this graph the very mysterious explanation:


I’ll give a hearty thumbs up to any Tennessee education reporter who gets to the bottom of what this could possibly mean.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was once good friends with Chris Barbic, and maybe he still sees me as a good guy, though an annoying one.  I hope so.  A year and a half ago he was the recipient of one of my ‘classic Rubinstein’ open letters.  I write him emails from time to time, mostly yelling at him for having become a ‘reformer.’  He hasn’t written me back in a while, actually.  But from time to time he will respond to one of my tweets.  I’ll then tweet back and a bunch of others will usually join in and then Chris, like the groundhog seeing his shadow, but this time it is him seeing his own reflection, and he goes into hiding for a few months.

Screen shot 2014-07-30 at 10.08.45 PM

This concludes this edition of the 2014 report on the Achievement School District.  For sure there will be three more of these 2015, 2016, and 2017.  After that I will determine if the ASD has met their goal of getting the bottom 5% of schools up to the top 25% in just 5 years armed with only a healthy dose of high expectations and a whole bunch of new TFA teachers.



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17 Responses to Underachievement School District 2014 Edition

  1. Educator says:

    What a zinger of a post! All these percentages and growth compared to other districts and whatnot. What are we talking about here?

    If the average district had their students get 40 of 60 questions right on a multiple choice test, then for a district to be outperforming the average district their students get 41 or 42 right? Then they can claim they’re outperforming the average district?

    Is that what we’re talking about here? A few more multiple choice questions correct on average? Or is it more substantial, like ten or fifteen more correct. Anyone know? Anyone care?

  2. Priscilla Bremser says:

    Sadly, I don’t think education reporters in Tennessee are unique among their colleagues. The inability and/or unwillingness to investigate claims about data is a common problem, and annoyingly ironic when it concerns mathematics education. If reporters would make it a habit to ask just one question — Compared To What? — every time they were handed some percentages, then we might not be asked to swallow as much junk.

    • Meghan Vaziri says:

      In my city, they are not just unable or unwilling to investigate, they are actually paid by the Gates Foundation to present biased reporting (they were brazen enough to announce this fact recently). That may be true in other cities as well.

  3. Thank you for all of your work relating to Memphis. ^0^

  4. Meghan Vaziri says:

    Thank you very much! The ASD created unnecessary chaos and instability in the lives of the poorest children in Memphis. It claimed it needed to do this to get test scores up — and then didn’t even do that. But I think it’s important to point out that even if they had gained in test scores, most teachers, parents, and students, would still not consider this a good organization that truly helps children.

    I want to point out, also, regarding the poor quality of Tennessee education reporters, that the Commercial Appeal (newspaper of Memphis, TN) is now in “partnership” with Chalkbeat. Chalkbeat, as I’m sure you know, is financed by the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

    I’m meeting with head of Chalkbeat Tennessee later today, actually. I think he was upset by my letter to the editor. He wants ideas for what to write in his paper (but I doubt he’ll use my suggestions). Might as well try, right?

  5. Looks like they are replicating the Recovery School District of Louisiana quite well, making claims of academic success that are always unfounded when you peel back the onion.

    I guess the next questions to ask to really see if they are following the Recovery School District model; are their charter schools administratively top heavy with several people making six figure salaries, are the charter schools boards self appointed and non-transparent and have they disengage the public (parents and community ) from the education process?

  6. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein on Tennessee’s Pathetic Lies About Its Underachievement District | Diane Ravitch's blog

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  8. Ah, Tennessee: where all the charter schools killed a bare when they was three:


    Nice piece, Gary.

  9. Wow. Just wow. Keep up your excellent work, Gary.

  10. Pingback: Frayser 9GA, the miracle school of the Achievement School District | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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  12. Josh Kilroy says:

    The RSD in Lousiana was NOT “set into action because of a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina.” It was set up in 2003 – two years before Katrina – in an attempt to repair the damage caused by the defenders of the status quo in monopoly education.

  13. Pingback: Dad Gone Wild | The Belief Gap as created by Chris Barbic

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  15. Pingback: Dad Gone Wild | The TN ASD: In search of a friend

  16. Pingback: The Underachievement School District 2015 Edition Part I | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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