The district-level TCAP results, which the Tennessee Department of Education released to the public on Wednesday, largely mirror statewide scores, which showed improved proficiency across all subjects and grades last school year. But the results also underscored that Tennessee’s most vulnerable student groups – a such as children with disabilities, those from low-income families, and students of color – continue to lag behind their peers academically.

by Samantha West and Kaitlyn Radde —

Nearly 17 percent of Memphis students in grades 3-12 performed at or above grade-level expectations in math and English on state standardized tests in 2022 – a sign that the district has recovered some ground from the steep academic declines caused by the pandemic.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ latest scores under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, also known as TCAP, show an overall proficiency increase of about 6 percentage points from last year and a near return to pre-pandemic levels. 

The district-level results, which the Tennessee Department of Education released to the public on Wednesday, largely mirror statewide scores, which showed improved proficiency across all subjects and grades last school year. But the results also underscored that Tennessee’s most vulnerable student groups – a such as children with disabilities, those from low-income families, and students of color – continue to lag behind their peers academically.

MSCS officials on Tuesday called the gains in the latest batch of scores “good news.” They touted near total recovery in reading at all grade levels, including the district’s strongest high school English scores in five years.

A year earlier, the district’s proficiency rate slid to just over 10 percent, reflecting the impact of the learning loss during the height of the pandemic.

But administrators stressed that they have a lot of work ahead to get proficiency rates where they should be.

Only about 21 percent of MSCS students in grades 3-12 met or exceeded grade-level expectations for English in the latest school year – up about 7 percentage points from last year, and about level with the 2019 score. (The state didn’t administer TCAPs in 2020.) And only about 13 percent of MSCS students in grades 3-12 met or exceeded grade-level expectations for math in 2022, up from 7 percent in 2021, but not quite back to the 2019 rate of 23 percent.

MSCS also saw smaller gains in social studies and science, with proficiency rates of nearly 22 percent and about 19 percent, respectively. In 2021, nearly 15 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations for the subjects.

“Definitely, we’re proud of the progress,” said Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support. “But we’re not satisfied.”

The latest scores come as Tennessee’s largest school district faces heightened scrutiny in the community. Citing poor academic performance, two education advocacy organizations, Memphis Lift and Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, have called on Supt. Joris Ray to resign and urged the state to audit the district’s finances.

“We don’t want to go into another school year and get the same results,” Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis Lift, told a gathering of community activists, parents, and school board candidates last month. “Our babies are smart. Our children can read. It’s something not being done from the top down.”

Ray and school board members have called the accusations “political antics.”

Heading into the next school year, Whitelaw said, the district plans to continue its focus on students who live in poverty and face heightened barriers to academic success. Nearly 60 percent of MSCS students are considered by the state to be economically disadvantaged.

The latest TCAP scores show that for grades 3-12, only about 15 percent of low-income MSCS students are considered proficient in English, 8 percent are proficient in math, and 13 percent are proficient in science – about 5 to 7 percentage points below the rates for all students in each subject.

The gap is wider in social studies: About 14 percent of low-income students in grades 3-12 meet grade-level expectations, compared with about 22 percent overall.

To close those gaps, Whitelaw said the district will continue strategies it adopted this year to boost recovery, many of which Ray introduced during his state of the district address. They include increasing small group instruction, expanding before- and after-school tutoring; offering more honors and Advanced Placement courses; and expanding the district’s CLUE program for talented and gifted students.

The district is also working on ways to better support teachers, said Amie Marsh, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. 

Marsh said the district is increasing educators’ access to professional development and coaching. And under the district’s latest $2.1 billion budget, MSCS teachers will receive a 2 percent raise this school year and $1,500 retention bonuses.

“As we move into year two of this, we’ve put some very strong tools in place,” Marsh said of the pandemic recovery effort. “We really want to make sure moving forward that we’re supporting our teachers and pushing our students to even greater heights.”

(Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at [email protected] Kaitlyn Radde is a data reporting intern at Chalkbeat. Connect with Kaitlyn at [email protected]).