Beyond test scores, Tennessee looks at how to evaluate districts and schools under ESSA

As Tennessee education leaders draft a new plan to evaluate the state’s schools and districts, they’re trying to move beyond test scores.

But exactly which metrics to incorporate into the state’s new accountability equation are still very much in the air as the State Department of Education develops an accountability plan in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen put that challenge Wednesday to her 21-member testing task force of educators, politicians, and researchers — just one of several groups the state is consulting.

Passed by Congress last year, ESSA gives states more latitude in defining and measuring school and district success. While states still must report annual test scores, ESSA encourages choosing metrics that paint a fuller picture of what goes on inside schools.

“We do think we have a great moment and a great opportunity in Tennessee to really make a statement about our values,” Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns told task force members. “What are our values beyond test data?”

Here are factors that could soon be part of Tennessee’s accountability plan, and what task force members are saying about them.

What do you think? Which metrics would best help the state determine which districts and schools that are serving schools well, and which need interventions? Let us know in the comments below.

Discipline data

No consensus emerged on whether discipline data, like expulsion and suspension rates, should be used to grade districts and schools. But department officials and task force members insisted the issue needs to be addressed, even if it’s not part of the accountability system.

Kyle Southern, policy director for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), cited a University of Pennsylvania report showing that Tennessee suspended and expelled more students than any other state in the South — and that students of color are disproportionately affected.

Towns said she has been looking at discipline stats from across the state, especially in her home district in Knoxville.

“Frankly, some of the disparities around which subgroups are being most affected by suspensions, it’s shocking,” she said. “This is something that has very severe consequences when you talk about school-to-prison pipeline, dropout rates.”

Strengths: Data on suspensions and expulsions — and racial disparities — is easily accessible. Holding schools accountable for high numbers of suspensions and expulsion incentivizes alternatives, which would increase the amount of time students spend in school. Helping districts focus on discipline could improve school culture and equity across the state, as well as improve emotional supports for students.

Drawbacks: Districts report suspensions and expulsions differently. There’s the potential unintended consequence of schools not enforcing rules and being lenient on disruptive or unsafe behavior. And some schools and districts have more resources, such as guidance counselors and social workers, to help support students.

Chronic Absenteeism

Task force members were most adamant about including chronic absenteeism in the reboot of Tennessee’s accountability system, although they weren’t sure what the definition of chronic absenteeism should be.

Weakley County Schools Director Randy Frazier said students’ performance starts suffering from absences long before the courts consider them truant. “We know it’s an issue that affects instruction,” he said.

Pros: Research consistently shows a correlation between attendance and post-secondary success. Also, absenteeism gives insight into school culture and relationships in ways that other metrics can’t.

Cons: Absenteeism can be outside of schools’ control, and not all schools have access to support services that help ensure kids show up to schools.

A student social-emotional and learning survey

Tennessee districts already administer surveys around school climate to students and teachers. Department leaders asked task force members if districts and schools would want to be evaluated based on the results of a student survey about social and emotional supports, such as relationships with teachers and skills such as perseverance. Members answered that social and emotional learning conditions are important, but questioned how reliable a survey would be.

Pros: Social and emotional learning is linked not only to improved academic outcomes, but to improved conditions long after school, such as employment and happiness. It’s an untapped way to assess the non-academic factors at a school, such as relationships, that educators know are important.

Cons: Younger students might not understand the survey, and it might take a long time to develop one that can accurately capture both what a school does and how it feels for its students.

Early post-secondary options

About half of task force members said that early post-secondary measures — such as access to AP or IB courses and community college classes — should somehow be included in the accountability system. Towns listed a lot of questions to dig into if the state uses post-secondary opportunities as a metric: What counts as an early post-secondary opportunity? Should all opportunity be counted the same? And, since courses vary across schools and districts, how should performance in such courses be evaluated?

Pros: Expanding early post-secondary options aligns with the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to increase the number of students who finish some sort of postsecondary education.  Performing well in college prep or vocational courses is a strong indicator of success in college or careers. And being able to rack up college credits in high school saves students money.

Cons: Questions are plentiful about what “post-secondary” opportunities look like in elementary and middle schools, and what metrics could be used to measure them. Also, some schools can’t afford to offer many college preparatory or vocational courses, either because they don’t have enough students, lack funding, or both. Task force members want to avoid tracking wealthier students into different classes and opportunities than their less-affluent peers.

Access to highly effective teachers

Last fall, a State Department of Education report found that low-achieving students are less likely to have a teacher that scored well on their state teacher evaluation than their high-achieving peers — even though low-achieving students have more to gain from strong teaching. The department has earmarked access to quality teachers as a major equity issue.

Pros: Research shows that teachers have a significant impact on student performance, perhaps more than any other factor schools can control.

Cons: While there’s a consensus that effective teachers are important, not everyone agrees what a highly effective teacher is, and how that effectiveness can be measured. Some districts have an advantage in attracting good teachers, either because of the pay they can offer or because of geography: School systems near cities simply have a greater supply of teachers to choose from than rural districts.