Stuck in Sinking Sand on the Pathway to Graduation
Following Nashville Students’ Educational Journeys
Through the release of our Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Cluster Profiles, the Scarlett Family Foundation hoped to share data in a clear, concise format, and use this information to help tackle some of our city’s most pressing education questions, including: what happens to proficiency levels as students progress through their zoned schools?
In our last blog post, we zeroed in on another critical question: are Nashville students graduating ready for college or career? And we drew the conclusion, based on the data available to us, that an overwhelming majority of students are not graduating ready for their next step. But is this exclusively a high school problem? In order to paint a full picture of our student achievement deficits, we decided to take a deeper look into the pathway MNPS students will take toward graduation, beginning in their earliest school-going years.
In schooling, grades act as stepping stones, connecting one level of academic understanding to the next. Each grade creates different opportunities for students to be curious, explore their world, and leave prepared for the next step awaiting them. But when we look at cluster-level data, we find that student access to quality public education, and the opportunities found therein, look drastically different depending on where a student lives.
In too many neighborhoods, the pathway to graduation is like sinking sand, pulling students deeper into a broken system of low-performing schools— at every consecutive stage of their education.
All students deserve easy access to high-quality, public schools. But in Nashville, this is not a reality.
If a student lives in the Hillwood cluster, she will be zoned to attend one of four elementary schools. Two of these are Reward schools (ranking in the top 5% of all Tennessee schools), and another far exceeds state average proficiency levels for both English Language Arts and Math (58% and 50% achieving proficiency, respectively). On average, less than 1% of the elementary school students in this cluster have been suspended, only 11% are chronically absent (missing 10% of the school year, or 18 days), and teachers choose to remain in their positions by a rate of 92%. Looking at these metrics alone, it appears that families in this neighborhood have access to elementary schools able to provide their children a high-quality education.
In the Maplewood cluster, a student will also be zoned to attend one of four elementary schools, depending on where exactly he lives. One of these schools is a Reward school – but one is a Priority school, ranking in the bottom 5% of all schools in Tennessee. Only 17% of all elementary students in the Maplewood cluster are proficient in English Language Arts, and 15% in Math. On average, close to 4% of elementary students are suspended annually, 23% are chronically absent, and almost 16% of teachers are new to the job each year.
Let’s imagine that a family in the Maplewood cluster is considering enrolling their student at Tom Joy Elementary. A Priority school, only 5% of Tom Joy’s 421 students are proficient in English Language Arts, and the rate is even lower for Math. Unless this family has the ability to enroll their child in a charter or private school, their only elementary school option is a school that fails to bring 95% of its students to proficiency. This is a disservice to the family and to the child.
The metrics presented in our Cluster profiles make clear that a scenario like this is the reality for countless Nashville families, and illustrate that even in elementary school, a majority of MNPS students are already being left behind.
The degree to which student achievement lags behind grade level standards only grows from elementary to middle school.
The Maplewood cluster is home to two zoned middle schools – and both rank in the bottom 5% of schools statewide. Across the cluster, enrollment drops from elementary to middle school, and nearly 17% of students will either be suspended or chronically absent from school. The two-year rate of educators who do not return to teach in these schools is 20% . Taken together, these challenges affect the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn: only 6% of middle school students in the Maplewood cluster are proficient in English Language Arts, and less than 5% are proficient in Math.
Hillwood also has two middle schools, but in this case, both exceed the MNPS average for proficiency in English Language Arts and Math. Proficiency rates for students in English Language Arts is 29, and 26% in Math. However, like the Maplewood cluster, enrollment drops from elementary to middle, and the percentage of students who are suspended or chronically absent nearly doubles.
If we compare the two clusters, Hillwood’s middle schools are performing well – but let’s flip some numbers. If roughly 30% of students are proficient in ELA or Math, that means at least 70% of Hillwood students are not achieving proficiency. Imagine the effect this will have on our students as they enter high school, and eventually a college classroom or professional workplace.
As we comb through these numbers, a trend emerges. In all clusters, academic achievement sinks as we follow the pathway of elementary to middle to high school. It seems that students progress from one grade to the next without gaining the academic knowledge they will need to flourish in the future.
As students in the Hillwood cluster transition from middle to high school, even more of them will miss at least 10% of all school days— now, one in five students is chronically absent. Consequently, English and Math proficiency numbers also decline. Although the vast majority of students in this cluster will graduate, a much smaller number will score a 21 or higher on the ACT, indicating that they should be considered college and career ready — only one in four, or about 265 students.
In the Maplewood cluster, we see an even more significant spike in empty seats during the school day, with 42% of students chronically missing school. The number of students “On Track” dips below 5% in both English or Math, and only around 41 students are considered college or career ready upon graduation. Still, just as in the case of Hillwood High School, most of these students will receive a high school diploma.
Unless dramatic improvement is made, a student in the Maplewood cluster will attend a school ranking in the bottom five percent statewide for every year of their education.
For a student in the Hillwood cluster, the academic experience is likely to be better— but far from exceptional. From elementary to high school, the percentage of students that are considered “On Track” continues to slide lower at each step, until only 17% (ELA) and 7.2% Math) of students are learning what they need.
Incredibly, the graduation rates between these two high schools, Hillwood (81%) and Maplewood (79%), are almost the same— with only a 2% difference.
These numbers demand a city-wide conversation. Let’s decide, finally, that zip code will not be destiny for Nashville students.
It’s time for all members of our community to band together and push for transformative change. We must create a system that allows all high school graduates to succeed after graduation, no matter which post-grad pathway they choose. And when we say all students, we mean all— from Hillwood to Maplewood.
Read more about ways you can get involved and make change here.