At the Scarlett Family Foundation, we work towards the goal of one day seeing 100% of our high school graduates prepared for college or career. But in Metro Nashville in 2019, reality is very far from that goal. The numbers tell us that too few high school graduates hit the mark of college and career ready – and in some schools, the number is too low to even report.
In our MNPS Cluster Profiles, we dove deep into local data to understand how Nashville students are faring academically, and to evaluate whether or not our system of public education has adequately prepared them for success at the next level.
We explained how a student’s experience can vary dramatically according to where they live – and we discovered that most of Nashville’s highest performing schools are concentrated in just a few neighborhoods. We placed a spotlight on the unacceptable reality that three out of four students graduating from Nashville public high schools are not considered ready for college or career.
And as we unpacked data from across all twelve MNPS clusters, we found another disturbing trend: the N/A.
Usually, when we look at the performance data for an MNPS school, we would expect to see numbers – actual digits – in the spots reserved for Math and English proficiency rates. Instead, for 10 out of the 12 MNPS high schools, we see only N/A, or “not available”.
The N/A is easy to ignore; but in fact, it can tell us a lot about the state of Nashville’s schools. Unfortunately, the news is not good.
Proficiency or N/A: What does it mean and why does it matter?
Tennessee tracks proficiency by counting the number of students who are “on track,” meaning they’ve learned the subject material in relation to the state’s learning standards for their grade level, or “mastered,” which means they have extensive understanding and expert ability of the subject. Proficiency in Math and English Language Arts is the most commonly used indicator of a school’s ability to effectively prepare students.
Sometimes, proficiency levels are very high (95% or more) or very low (5% or less). In these cases, the state suppresses— or does not publicly release— a school’s proficiency data in order to protect the identity of that school’s students. Instead of a percentage, the schools receive an “N/A” score for Math, English Language Arts, or both.
Consider the following example to understand why this practice exists: One high school has a senior class of 20 people, and only one student (or 5% of the class) scores “on track” or has “mastered” the material. The state contends that if this data is made publicly-available, a person who is familiar with the school, or its students, might easily discern which student is the high-performer— and which 19 students are not on track.
Although the N/A can also be used as a substitute for near-perfect proficiency rates, it’s unlikely that this is the reason it appears here. In our city, this abbreviation is attached only to schools we know to be the lowest performing. N/A stands not in the place of very high proficiency numbers, but of very low.
The Troubling N/A Epidemic in Nashville
According to the most recently available data, ten of MNPS’ twelve traditional high schools register “N/A” proficiency scores— student proficiency below five percent in English, Math or both subjects. For the 2017-2018 school year:
Three high schools (Stratford STEM, Whites Creek and Maplewood) have N/A listed for both Math and English. These three high schools represent 2,563 students— but fewer than 130 students in all of these schools combined scored proficient in either of the core subject areas.
At the other seven schools, representing almost 10,000 students in total, only one in ten (or fewer) students met English standards for their grade level. All of these schools also show an N/A for math skills.
There are only two traditional high schools that do not have an N/A for either Math or English Language Arts: Hillwood and Hillsboro. However, proficiency levels for those schools are still low, and do not exceed 23% in either subject at either school.
Combatting the N/A Epidemic
Nashville’s N/A crisis has reached epidemic proportions. The lack of core subject proficiency across our traditional high school population is bound to impact the health of our city as a whole. Without a solid understanding of Math and English Language Arts, how can we expect students to succeed in higher education, or in the workforce? These are Nashville’s children, and its future economic talent pool. How can we continue to thrive as a city if fewer than 5% of our high school students are reaching academic proficiency?
The story behind N/A is that thousands of our high school students are moving through grade levels, from freshman to senior year, without ever having grasped the core competencies of math and English. N/A means that each year, our high school graduates are entering the workforce or college ill-prepared for the challenges that await them.
Most significantly, N/A means our city has failed to provide these students with the quality education they have a right to receive.