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.

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.

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

ACT bump

Tennessee sees ACT gains after becoming first state to fund retakes for all students

Last fall, Tennessee became the nation’s first state to pay for its students to retake the ACT college entrance exam.

On Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the investment paid off.

Nearly 26,000 students in the Class of 2017 opted to participate in the state’s first ACT Senior Retake Day in October. Of those, nearly 40 percent got higher scores. And about 5 percent — 1,331 students in all — raised their composite above the 21 necessary to receive the state’s HOPE Scholarship, which provides up to $16,000 toward in-state tuition.

The ACT retake also resulted in more students hitting the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, an area where Tennessee has struggled. The percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks increased from 21.5 percent to 26.8 percent.

Additionally, over a third of school districts increased their ACT average, with the best gains in Maryville City, which increased its composite average by a full point.

Under the initiative, the State Department of Education paid the fees for students to take the test for a second time in hopes of boosting their scores and chances for college scholarships.

“Our goal is to open more doors for students after high school, and these results are one more step toward that vision,” McQueen said. “We want students to graduate from high school with the ability to access whatever path they want to explore, and we know too often low ACT scores create a barrier.”

The retake day cost the state $760,000. ACT provided an additional $353,000 in fee waivers for low-income students.

Gov. Bill Haslam has included money to continue the program in his budget proposal for 2017-18.