An 11th-hour compromise by Tennessee lawmakers on the last day of their legislative session makes it so “no adverse action may be taken” against any student, teacher, school, or district based on results from this year’s bungled state standardized tests.
The vote was the legislature’s second TNReady-related action in the last week. The first gave districts options for lessening the impact of this year’s assessment on students’ final grades, and also prevented them from using the results for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.
But concern that lawmakers hadn’t gone far enough led to Wednesday’s legislation after a day-long standoff over how best to address the testing glitches, most of them online but some on paper too.
House members initially sought to yank student growth scores from teachers’ evaluations and, at one point, even held the state’s $37.5 billion budget hostage for a second time in a week, refusing to send the approved spending plan to Gov. Bill Haslam until a resolution could be reached. That stance brought the legislature to a grinding halt on its final day.
“If you don’t understand — from the school district to the superintendents — that we want our teachers held harmless, then I’m sorry, you’re tone-deaf,” said Rep. Eddie Smith, a Knoxville Republican who led the charge in the House.
Haslam’s administration and leaders in the Senate sought to hold the line.
“We do know that teacher evaluations are key to the success of our children here in Tennessee,” said Sen. Dolores Gresham, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, during a legislative hearing earlier in the day.
In the end, both chambers approved another bill hashed out in a conference committee that said: “No adverse action may be taken against any student, teacher, school or [local education agency] based in whole or in part on student achievement data generated from the 2017-2018 TNReady assessments.”
The bill went on to say that an “adverse action” would include identifying a school as a “priority school” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the starting point for state intervention.
“It ain’t perfect. But it is an absolute huge step forward,” said Rep. William Lamberth, a Republican from Cottontown, in explaining his vote for the compromise.
Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville questioned why the House was blinking in the standoff, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said the bigger goal was to clear up any ambiguity.
“This body made it abundantly clear that no adverse action can happen. It’s that simple,” Fitzhugh said.
However, it’s still uncertain what the bill means for how test data is used in teacher evaluations. Earlier Wednesday, the state Department of Education was still working through the legislature’s order from last week to figure out those impacts.
"This body made it abundantly clear that no adverse action can happen. It’s that simple."
Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley
Teachers groups were appreciative of the final bill, though.
“We have worked closely with legislators to advocate for further measures to protect teachers,” said Professional Educators of Tennessee COO Audrey Shores. “We are pleased that legislators unanimously provided that students, educators or schools will not be held responsible for unreliable results from the failures of the TNReady online assessment platform this year.”
The Tennessee Education Association tweeted that the legislation covers all laws, rules, and policies and promised to be “watching it like a hawk” to see that the legislature’s intent is followed.
Lawmakers have been inundated with phone calls and emails from teachers and parents angry about the most recent blunders with TNReady and concerned that the resulting data would be flawed. The upheaval began last week when technical problems erupted on the online version. At one point, the state and its testing company, Questar, blamed some of the glitches on a cyber attack.
The language in both bills seeks to keep Tennessee’s school accountability plan in compliance with a federal education law that requires states to include student performance in their teacher evaluation model — or risk losing federal funding for schools. Lawmakers also cited the state’s tenure rules in preserving the data.
TNReady is now in the second of a three-week testing window, with serious problems cropping up during at least four of those days, including on Wednesday when an overnight software upgrade by Questar affected online rosters for high schoolers.
This story has been updated.