Tennessee schools might soon come under the same grading system as the students they serve.

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would assign letter grades to schools based on a combination of data including student growth and proficiency rates on state tests and ACT scores. A House committee approved the measure a day earlier.

For supporters, it’s common sense. Letter grades are easy for parents to understand when trying to determine how their child’s school is performing, or where they should send their child to a school.

Critics, however, say letter grades lack nuance. Instead of clearly identifying the quality of a school, letter grades could oversimplify their status and circumstances, further stigmatizing schools and communities with low-income populations.

During discussion Tuesday in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Nashville) said giving a school a failing grade would be the equivalent of branding the school with a scarlet letter.

“I can see the headlines now: Blank Blank School — F!” she said. “I would ask that we not add another layer of embarrassment, of defeat, to those communities that serve particularly the poorest of the students.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) echoed Turner’s concerns, predicting that well-resourced schools would receive As while schools with significantly less resources would get Ds and Fs.

“What I’m afraid we’re going to have is the clearly A schools and then we’re going to have schools that are actually improving, that are actually doing a wonderful job based on the tax base, based on the amount of poverty in their community, and they might not be graded as high,”  Fitzhugh said. “I think that would just be a slap in the face to the students, the parents, to the leaders in the community, to the citizens of the community.”

Tennessee already is heralded for its detailed school report cards, which are accessible online. Currently, the report cards list school information ranging from proficiency rates to racial achievement gaps. But letter grades would add another layer of simplicity for Tennesseans curious about their schools, said Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who introduced the bill the House.

“I think it’s just good to have a macro-view,” in addition to the existing detailed information, Casada said.

Casada, who represents one of Tennessee’s wealthiest districts, said he understands that poverty and lack of resources would be obstacles for some schools to achieve a good grade, but that these are the realities of our world today. A businessman, he compared the challenges to how he is expected to make sales, even during an economic recession. “When we’re graded, when we’re analyzed, it puts us beyond our limits,” he said.

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 Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to promote education reform, has been at the forefront of the push for school letter grades. Florida began grading its schools in 1999 as part of a wave of changes designed to increase school accountability. Testifying last week before Tennessee’s Senate Education Committee, Christy Hovanetz, a policy fellow for the advocacy group, said the simple addition of letter grades to school report cards helped raise the quality of schools across Florida. “Our A-to-F focus really provided focus and guidance on where our schools should be heading in the future,” she said.

The group has advocated for passage of similar legislation in 16 other states.

Some states have experienced a backlash. In North Carolina, educators say the letter grades don’t accurately reflect school quality as much as a school neighborhood’s socioeconomic makeup. However, many politicians say they are pleased with the attention the grades are drawing to high-need schools.

Here’s what you had to say when we asked about the bill on Twitter:

Now that you’ve read about the debate, what do you think? Tell us here:

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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