Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn says she is backing off from pursuing changes to the way Tennessee judges its public schools this school year.

Schwinn gave a brief update publicly last week to the state Board of Education when Vice Chairman Bob Eby inquired about the status of her efforts to revise the state’s framework for rating schools with A-F grades. 

Schwinn had floated the idea earlier of letting some schools omit measures of student growth, which would have marked a dramatic change in Tennessee, considered a pioneer in using “value-added” measurements to judge teachers and schools. 

“For now, we will continue to listen to stakeholder feedback and, if and when it becomes the appropriate time, bring information to the board,” she responded to Eby.

Later in the week, Schwinn was asked the same question privately by leaders of the state superintendents group during a special meeting to discuss their concerns about a “lack of details” on her proposal.

“The department has no plans to make accountability changes in the foreseeable future,” she told LaDonna McFall, superintendent of Roane County Schools; David Snowden, director of Franklin Special School District; and Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

The comments mark a retreat on the commissioner’s ambitious plan to revamp the state’s school accountability system — one of her first major campaigns as head of Tennessee’s Education Department since Republican Gov. Bill Lee hired Schwinn in January. 

It also means that, at least for now, Tennessee will stick with a framework that emphasizes academic growth for all students, regardless of whether those students are deemed proficient on state tests. 

Schwinn told the state board’s accountability subcommittee in August that revisions were warranted based on feedback she had received while touring schools and reviewing comments from an annual survey of Tennessee educators.

“What we heard is that [the process] needs to be better and more clear,” she told the subcommittee, adding that the state’s grading formula “can’t be a black box of information” that teachers and leaders don’t understand.

“If we’re going to put a grade on a school, we need to be really, really clear in what constitutes that grade,” she continued.

But amid reports that Schwinn was seeking to expedite a state board vote on her proposal, a behind-the-scenes uprising ensued from influential superintendents and key education advocates who worked for almost a year to develop Tennessee’s current framework for judging schools. Under that system, schools received their first numeric ratings last year and will be graded A-F this school year as a way to be more transparent about how schools are doing.

One superintendent sent feedback to the state board in an extensive document that questioned the timing and merits of Schwinn’s proposal.

“Tennessee made unprecedented national gains over the last decade using strong accountability systems that emphasize growth for all students,” stated the document obtained by Chalkbeat. “Any accountability system that allows some schools to omit measures of student growth or suggests some students can’t grow poses a serious risk to our state education policy foundation.”

Schwinn was called to the Capitol in Nashville on Sept. 11 to meet on her proposal with the leaders of the legislature’s two education committees and staff for the governor and state board. Their directive: Slow down the process and seek feedback from a more diverse group of stakeholders. 

Both Republican legislative leaders, Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville and Rep. Mark White of Memphis, later sent Schwinn a letter that sets the parameters for pursuing any changes to an accountability model that they said “has been praised repeatedly on a national level.” 

“Any changes to our current accountability model must maintain the use of growth as measured by the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) and comply with both ESSA and state accountability laws,” they wrote.

You can read the full letter below: