common core

Common Core bill delayed as conversation shifts in legislature

PHOTO: G.Tatter
In February, the state House Education Instruction and Planning convened before a packed crowd interested in the fate of the Common Core State Standards. This week, the crowd was lighter, and the bill was scrapped.

The curtain rose Wednesday at the Tennessee legislature on official debate about the Common Core State Standards, but despite a packed audience, the show was postponed.

The House subcommittee in charge of academic standards was scheduled to discuss House Bill 3, which would scrap Common Core in Tennessee by the 2016-2017 school year.

But citing an “epiphany,” Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) asked Rep. John Forgety (R-Athens), the sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee, to roll the bill a week while lawmakers confer with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.

Forgety’s bill calls for creation of new standards in a review process similar to the one Haslam began in last fall. Forgety said it was possible that his proposed review and the governor’s could be aligned so that no legislation would be necessary. He noted that he began drafting his bill in June, almost five months before the governor’s review process was even announced.

The intent of the bill, Forgety said, is to make sure teachers have a voice in the academic standards they must teach by.

“I’m of the opinion that this body (the legislature) should not be in the business of telling a third-grade teacher how to teach,” said Forgety, a former teacher and school superintendent.

While Forgety’s proposal mandates new state standards by 2016-2017, the governor’s review process assumes that Tennesseans might stay the course on Common Core. Otherwise, Forgety’s proposal is not that different from the review already underway. He would have the State Board of Education appoint six advisory teams specialized by subject and grade levels. Each would include at least three public school teachers and instructional leaders; one faculty member from a higher education institution in this state; and two parents of public school students.

In Haslam’s review, all Tennesseeans can comment online on the standards. There are also two eight-person committees of educators from across the state, and three advisory teams of educators that work under those committees. Just as with Forgety’s proposal, members of the panels were appointed by the State Board of Education.

In the months leading up to the legislative session, Common Core naysayers dominated headlines with protests and anti-Core school board campaigns. Many legislators, including some members of education committees in the House and Senate, publicly and adamantly oppose Common Core, and Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey declared the standards were as good as dead earlier in the week, before official debate even began.

But as the week progressed, supporters of the standards — or at least of the review process already in place — have become more vocal. On Tuesday, the Tennessee Organization of State Superintendents (TOSS) released a letter to lawmakers asking them to maintain the state’s current academic standards for now. The conversation seems to have shifted, with lawmakers no longer asking whether to repeal the current standards, but how best to review, and possibly adapt, the standards.

Common Core State Standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that dictate the skills students should have at each grade level. In 2010, Tennessee joined most other states in implementing the standards and has been developing a test to align with them to accurately measure students’ academic progress. Opposition to the standards – which are tied to education grant programs under President Obama’s administration – is in part due to fears of federal overreach.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

The House subcommittee’s meeting room was filled with constituents, including teachers, organized by Tennesseans for Student Success, an advocacy group in favor of keeping the standards for now. The group introduced itself to many Tennesseans through television and radio advertisements asking lawmakers for “results, not rhetoric.” Supporters wore green stickers with the slogan “Going Backwards is Unacceptable. No on HB3.” Some wore matching red T-shirts with the same message.

Wayne Miller, executive director of TOSS, said Wednesday he trusts any review process endorsed by Forgety. Miller has said that school superintendents are not against Tennessee changing its standards but doesn’t want a hasty move that disrupts teachers and students.

“I think [Forgety] is ‘spot on’ on wanting to focus everyone’s attention on what’s a good, fair way to make sure that all Tennesseans have buy-in,” Miller said. “He is as purely motivated around this subject as anyone could be. Anytime you get collaborative conversation, you’re going to get a better product.”

Forgety predicted more bills related to the standards will be filed this week. Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), chairwoman of the Senate Education committee, filed a bill similar to Forgety’s in November.

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County