Tennessee will wait another year to grade its schools A-F

Tennessee has delayed for a second year its plan to start giving A-F grades to its 1,800 public schools — another reprieve for schools that are expected to receive poor ratings.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn informed district leaders on Monday that her department will wait until after next school year to launch the system, which is designed to increase public awareness about the quality of K-12 education in Tennessee.

Just as last year, the delay is rooted in two emergency state laws passed in 2018 after days of online testing problems called into question the reliability of scores on the annual student assessment known as TNReady. Legislators ordered schools shielded from any “adverse action” from those scores, including assigning letter grades to schools. 

This year’s letter grades would have been based on student achievement results for both this year and last, as well as other factors like chronic absenteeism and out-of-school suspensions.

“We determined that state law prohibits the department from using student performance and student growth data from the 2017­­–18 school year in assigning school letter grades,” Schwinn told superintendents in an email. 

The state will stick with a scaled-down numeric rating system for now and switch to letter grades after the 2019-20 school year, she added.

The delay is considered a short-term win for groups that don’t believe single letter grades are the way to increase transparency about school performance.

“Ultimately, we think it confuses more than it helps,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

“We’re not opposed to grades or school designations,” he added. “We just don’t think that you could ever take a group of scores and add them up to come up with one single score that gives a good picture of how schools are doing in Tennessee.”

It’s also a reprieve for low-performing schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent, known as priority schools. Most are in Memphis and Nashville and were expected to receive some of the lowest letter grades. 

It’s uncertain how parents and communities will respond eventually if their school is rated “D” or “F,” especially in Tennessee’s two largest cities where the state is preparing to launch a voucher program as soon as next year. That education savings account program, which the legislature approved this spring at the urging of Gov. Bill Lee, will give eligible parents the option of leaving public schools and using taxpayer money toward private school tuition or other private education services.

Some public school advocates who want greater transparency about school quality worry that single letter grades could backfire, especially with vouchers on the horizon. Instead of encouraging school communities to work urgently to improve their schools, an “F” designation could stigmatize schools already burdened with high needs, especially in low-income areas, and create yet another hurdle to overcome, says Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with the Tennessee Education Equity Coalition.

“The good thing about an A-F system is that people understand what those grades mean and it can prompt urgency in all kinds of folks and ways,” Pupo-Walker said. “But the bad thing is that a single rating can come to define a school and it may not capture all of the dimensions of that school community.”

Conversely, she said, good letter grades awarded to schools can mask important shortcomings such as low performance by subgroups of historically underserved students.

Pupo-Walker hopes the extra year can be used to better educate the public about the upcoming rating system and its purpose.

"For us, this is not about A-F grades. It is about providing clear, transparent, and accessible information that people can use to make decisions."

Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition

“For us, this is not about A-F grades. It is about providing clear, transparent, and accessible information that people can use to make decisions,” she said.

Tennessee has walked a tightrope in recent years to comply with a handful of state and federal laws about school ratings. A 2016 state law ordered creation of an A-F grading system, which Tennessee leaders then incorporated into the state’s education accountability plan to comply with a 2015 federal law requiring a school rating system. But after TNReady testing headaches, subsequent state laws forced department officials last year to toss out the A-F system — at least temporarily — that had been under development for more than a year.

In the interim, the department has used a numeric rating system — with 0 being the worst and 4 being the best — to provide useful information about how schools are doing in areas such as chronic absenteeism; out-of-school suspensions; student readiness for college, career and the military; and a variety of student achievement and growth data. 

That system will continue this year, and the department plans to publish the newest numeric ratings online in mid-August as part of the updated state report card, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

Schwinn wants the state Board of Education to review and develop rules for Tennessee’s school rating system this fall, giving professional and advocacy groups another opportunity to weigh in. Their input could change how the state comes up with the final grades.

“There are many dimensions to a rating,” said Pupo-Walker. “The more deliberation and thought about what goes into it, the better.”