From another year of statewide testing snafus to a growing consensus that pre-K investments are key to unlocking stubborn reading barriers, Tennessee faced education challenges and opportunities in 2017 that are sure to make headlines again during the new year.
Here are six issues we expect to revisit in 2018.
1. TNReady testing: Will the third time be a charm?
During the first year of Tennessee’s new standardized test, TNReady was canceled for most grades after a testing company’s new online platform stalled on the first day. This year, testing went better, but there were fumbles, including score deliveries that were too late to be useful and a scanning mistake that led to scoring errors on some high school tests. In the spring, when the bulk of this school year’s TNReady testing happens, Tennessee is counting on high schools’ switch to online testing to expedite score delivery and pave the way for online testing the following year for most younger students. State officials say TNReady is off to a good start in its third year, with 266 high schools on block schedules completing the online test this fall.
2. Vouchers again?
The battle over vouchers had been expected to dominate education debate when the state legislature reconvenes in January. But the surprising news that the Senate sponsor Brian Kelsey doesn’t plan to carry the bill in 2018 means vouchers could stall again, unless the House sponsor Harry Brooks finds a new champion in the Senate. (Update: Brooks has since said that he won’t pursue the bill either, effectively killing the proposal.) Either way, vouchers likely aren’t going away and definitely will be an issue in 2018 gubernatorial and legislative races, especially as President Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, continue to beat the drum for allowing parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision,” DeVos told reporters last month during her first official visit to Tennessee.
3. Priming for pre-K.
For years, Tennessee has waged a war on illiteracy with little success. But as the state seeks to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025, the growing consensus in 2017 was that investing in pre-K and early education programs is the key to reaching that goal. This year, for the first time, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding. But in Memphis and Nashville, home to some of the worst reading scores in the state, a significant challenge looms with the mid-2019 expiration of a $70 million federal grant that’s helped pay for hundreds of disadvantaged children to attend pre-K. Both communities are scrambling to fill that gap — a concern that this week compelled the Memphis City Council to pledge $8 million for pre-K classrooms (although without saying where the money would come from). The investment would be the city’s first in public education since handing over control of its schools to Shelby County four years ago.
4. A green light for ESSA.
More than a year and a half after President Obama signed a new federal education law that’s designed to give states more flexibility to innovate, Tennessee received approval this year of its new plan to meet the demands of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Tennessee’s accountability plan includes an A-F grading system, scheduled to roll out in mid-2018, aimed at helping parents and communities know more about the quality of their neighborhood schools. Beyond test scores, it will include measures like chronic absenteeism and the number of out-of-school suspensions. The plan also changes the state’s approach and timeline for holding chronically low-performing schools accountable. Next summer, Tennessee will issue its next list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, setting the stage for school improvement plans ranging from local-led interventions to takeover by the state’s turnaround district.
5. Tweaking turnaround.
The Achievement School District is in its sixth year of trying to turn around Tennessee’s lowest performing schools, and the state’s education commissioner has called the state-run district its most “rigorous intervention” under ESSA. But Memphis schools taken over by the district’s approved charter management organizations have yielded little improvement in their early years, while academically troubled schools in locally operated innovation zones have shown promise, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. Though the state education department has emphasized its support of the ASD, it’s pivoting next year to a new kind of intervention called a partnership zone, in which the state will partner with Hamilton County Schools to make improvements in five chronically underperforming Chattanooga schools.
6. A microscope on Memphis.
Improper grade changes that teachers say have been happening in the shadows for years is coming to light in Tennessee’s largest district. An external investigation launched this year after a Memphis high school principal noticed discrepancies between report cards and transcripts. The probe has since flagged concerns with at least seven other high schools, and three people have been fired or suspended as a result. Talks on how Shelby County Schools will clean house, help students negatively affected, and build in safeguards against future abuse is expected to dominate the coming year, even as the district enjoyed good news this year about better-than-expected finances and student enrollment.
Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story.