Test Scores Are Up, So Is Atlanta’s School Turnaround Plan Working?

Thomasville Heights Elementary School is one of four APS schools that received intensive help under the turnaround plan. Purpose Built Schools Atlanta partnered with Thomasville in 2016 to provide extra services, including tutoring and counseling. Thomasville's test scores have improved overall since then.
Credit Kaitlin Kolarik / WABE

Atlanta Public Schools has invested millions of dollars into its lowest-performing schools. The district hopes providing extra services, like high-intensity tutoring and extra counselors, will help boost achievement. Recent scores on the Georgia Milestones assessment show APS has made some small gains. However, it may be too soon to know whether the district’s turnaround plan is working.

‘Noise’ or Knowledge?

Spelman economics professor and education researcher Jarod Apperson analyzed the latest APS scores. He’s cautious about drawing too many conclusions from them.

“There’s a bit of noise in these things,” Apperson said. “You’re not going to have a perfectly accurate measure.”

In other words, it’s hard to know what causes small, year-to-year changes in scores. It could be new students, new programs, or new teachers, Apperson said.

“Swapping a teacher with no experience for a teacher with five years of experience would move [a student up] by about .2 grade levels,” he said.

Some APS schools did receive new leadership and teachers as part of the district’s turnaround effort. APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen agrees that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused the uptick, but she’s pleased with the recent scores.

“I embrace steady, incremental improvement over big increases that would leave the community suspect of Atlanta Public Schools,” she said. “We haven’t rebuilt trust enough for people to feel comfortable about — probably — test results.”

A big leap in scores is exactly what led reporters to investigate APS in 2009. The probe eventually resulted in a test cheating trial that found 11 former educators guilty of racketeering.

That was when Georgia students took a test called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). In 2015, the state issued a new, tougher test called Georgia Milestones. APS rolled out its turnaround plan in 2016.

‘Now They’re Moving’

Carstarphen says she’s particularly glad to see improvements at the 17 schools targeted for intervention.

“They’re just getting, kind of, out of the station, but now they’re moving,” Carstarphen said. “And that wasn’t true about these schools just a few years ago. They had not only been the lowest-performing schools in APS, but they were the lowest-performing schools in the state of Georgia.”

Four of those schools received intensive help from non-profit organizations that have taken over school operations. Three of the four have shown progress. Again, Apperson says, it’s hard to know why.

“It’s not that they’ve improved at such a rapid rate that it’s outside the realm of what we ever see from a school,” he says.

He says schools would need to sustain those improvements for several years before officials could tell whether the investment has paid off.

A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.