Tennessee governor and ed chief want to remove consequences from test scores for 2021

An orange sign says “testing in progress, do not disturb” as students work in the background.

Tennessee’s top leaders are calling on state lawmakers to remove negative consequences from student test results this upcoming spring. 

Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said the annual state tests, known as TNReady, will be administered as planned, but teachers and schools should be held harmless for the results. 

They said state legislators should adjust how they hold teachers, schools, and districts accountable for educating students because of disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic. School buildings were closed most of the spring semester and many students are still learning online, which educators acknowledge falls woefully short of in-person instruction. Lee said he would work with state lawmakers to “alleviate the burdens” associated with how test results are used.

“At this time, it’s most important that our teachers have a clear runway to focus on delivering solutions to students that need to grow academically whether it’s online or in person,” Lee told reporters Friday morning. “To me, that means accountability in teacher evaluations should be temporarily paused this year.”

Teacher evaluation scores, which rely heavily on student test scores, can be used in decisions for pay increases and determine how much additional training or monitoring a teacher receives. Schools with low test scores also receive more scrutiny from the state and in extreme cases can move under state control. 

But the state’s largest teacher organization, Tennessee Education Association, said the pause on accountability doesn’t go far enough and that the administration could save teachers “countless hours” by eliminating testing and other parts of evaluations not tied to student test scores. 

“It’s not just standardized testing. Our evaluation system is simply not designed to assess teaching during a pandemic,” said the association’s president Beth Brown. 

The announcement comes months after superintendents and school boards from across Tennessee have urged state officials to either cancel state tests or remove the accountability measures that come with them. 

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray applauded the state’s announcement in a statement Friday. 

“Now more than ever, we need to have a laser focus on student progress and continue to benchmark student achievement. However, we owe it to them to remove the high stakes of state testing so that we can focus on what matters most — doing whatever is necessary to help students reach their full potential,” Ray said.

The decision will ultimately be made by state legislators, who are expected to reconvene in January. Some lawmakers have already expressed support for the idea. The move also will require special waivers from the U.S. Department of Education. A September letter from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to state education chiefs indicated the federal government was open to granting waivers for accountability but not for canceling tests, Schwinn said. 

Lee said he does not want to risk federal funding by canceling tests altogether. 

“We have federal obligations to test kids and there is significant federal funding attached to those federal obligations,” he said. “And we need all the funding we can get for our public school system right now.”

Dropping consequences from test results is not new in Tennessee. In response to technical failures in online test delivery, state legislators held teachers and students harmless in 2018. Teachers and parents then worried students wouldn’t take the tests seriously. But Schwinn said she still expects that the 2021 results will give educators an idea of how much students are learning. 

“I believe that our districts are strong leaders for their students, our teachers are strong leaders for their students. And I think that the direction that they will provide to their students like they do every year is to try their best and show what they know,” she said. 

JC Bowman, the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, said he was “unsure” that testing at all would be valuable this year, but welcomed the state’s announcement. 

“Every dollar spent on high-stakes testing is a dollar taken away from the classroom,” he said in a statement. “This year it may be better for schools to focus on remediation, growth, and the safety of students.”

This story has been updated with statements from Shelby County Schools, Tennessee Education Association, and Professional Educators of Tennessee.

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