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Amid Expansion, Tenn. State-Run District Posts Mixed Test Results

In its first year, a closely watched effort to improve schools in Tennessee had mixed results on state standardized tests, but leaders remain optimistic. Tennessee's state-run Achievement School District, attended by about 1,500 students in its first year, saw an increase in the share of students who score proficient in math and science, while reading scores fell, the Tennessean reports.

The ASD, which ran five schools in Memphis and one in Nashville this year, was started with an ambitious goal: To take over schools that were in the bottom 5 percent of the state, as measured by standardized test scores, and move them into the top 25 percent.

In order to do achieve those improvements in test scores, the district needs to improve scores by about 8 percentage points each year, according to the Tennessean. This year, however, the district saw the percent of students scoring proficient in science rise by 7.7 percentage points, and in math, by 3.3 percentage points. But in reading, the percentage of students who were proficient declined by about 4.5 percentage points.

Statewide, meanwhile, the percentages of students scoring at proficient levels increased in all three subjects.

Chris Barbic, the founder of YES! Prep, a Houston-based charter-management organization, and who now runs the ASD, said he was still optimistic that the district will achieve its goal. He said that there would be renewed focus and more time for reading instruction in the schools next year.

The school district had just six schools in its first year, but will run ten new schools in Memphis this coming year and will eventually run more than 40. The Tennessean reports that some legislators are concerned about that expansion, given the mixed results in this first year.

The state-run district apparently saw some other improvements: an increase in attendance and a decrease in expulsions in its first year, and a high "growth" score from the state. The district bills itself as "redefining what it means to be a district" by giving school-level leaders more autonomy. It has been recruiting teachers and school leaders from around the country.

Nine charter-management organizations will begin running schools in the ASD in 2014 as the district continues to expand, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports.

The idea for the Achievement School District was initially set forth in Tennessee's Race to the Top grant application. For more on the history of the district, on some of the struggle to get community buy-in, and about the strategies it's using in schools, you can check out this paper from the Fordham Institute which posits that the Achievement School District could be a model for other states looking to improve low-performing schools.

The district is being closely watched in Tennessee and around the country. Indeed, Virginia has already created a similar district, the Opportunity Educational Institution. The ASD was itself modeled after the Recovery School District in Louisiana, but it will grow more slowly than did the RSD, which took over most of the schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, among the Tennessee schools that are not being run by the ASD, Memphis City Schools has merged with the Shelby school district this year, which includes the suburbs that surround the city of Memphis. But six of those suburbs have voted to create their own districts and withdraw from the merged district in the 2014-15 school year.

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