Notes on School Story
This story focuses primarily on schools within the city of Memphis and the former Memphis City Schools System due to the availability of those statistics. Currently, there is a single countywide unified school district, but cities around Memphis recently voted to create new districts out of Shelby County Schools.
In 2012, Memphis schools, as distinct from the former county school district, had the lowest graduation rate in the state at 70.3 percent. This is, by far, not the worst graduation rate in the country. Detroit holds that distinction with 37.5%
One high school in Union City and one 2-year technical school in Carroll County have a dropout rate higher than the average of all Memphis schools combined, but because these two schools are districts unto themselves, these two other "districts" claim higher dropout rates. Memphis City Schools (now Shelby County Schools and soon to be Shelby County Schools sans former county schools) is the largest school district in the state. It is the 22nd largest school district in the United States. Davidson County (the 42nd largest school district in the U.S.), which surrounds Nashville and has size and demographics that more closely correspond to Memphis', has a graduation rate of 78.4 percent and a dropout rate of 10.4 percent.
A note on test scores: Drawing upon 2013 district-level data provided by the Tennessee Department of Education, we averaged two sets of numbers representing students in grades 3-12 -- the percent of students that are "Below Basic" on their TCAP scores and the percent of students that are "Proficient" on their TCAP scores. When averaging the scores from the 11 different test areas, we found that 26.1 percent of Memphis City School students are at Below Basic levels, while 40.2 percent are Proficient. Of the five other districts with similarly low averages, Lake County, with three schools in its district, came closest to Memphis, with a Below Basic score of 20 and a Proficient score of 42.6. By comparison, students in Nashville's Davidson County scored 19.8 percent Below Basic and 49.7 percent Proficient. While these figures do not represent overall improvement in test scores, which went up statewide in 2013, they show where Memphis currently stands next to other districts, both large and small.
A third note: Educational progress is being made in Memphis, or more specifically, the former Memphis City Schools district. Twenty-two schools have been named "Reward Schools" by the Tennessee Department of Education. These are the top 5 percent of schools throughout the state that show the most progress in test scores. Memphis has the highest number of Reward Schools statewide.
It also has the highest number of "Priority Schools," which are the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. Of the 83 Priority Schools in the state, 69 are in Memphis. Davidson and Hamilton Counties have six Priority Schools apiece.
This document, from the George W. Bush Institute's Global Report Card, ranks the 30 largest school districts in America (using 2009 statistics). Memphis ranked 29th in Math, behind Detroit. It ranked 28th in reading, behind Los Angeles and Detroit.
Here is a comparison of Memphis (pre-merger) schools against the state average. This information is available here.