Tennessee’s new report card on schools omits more than it tells

Books, colored pencils, and a laptop on a wooden table with a blackboard in the background.
Information about every Tennessee school is included in the state’s new report card, a tool designed to help families and communities understand more about the quality of their schools and districts. Tennessee’s redesigned report card was unveiled on Sept. 21. 2020. (seksan Mongkhonkhamsao / Getty Images)

Tennessee’s new online report card on schools and districts contains more blank spaces than information, sparking criticism that the pages deliver little useful information for parents and policymakers alike.

Since its Sept. 21 release, the redesigned report card has been devoid of data related to academics, attendance, finances, and staffing. 

Most notably missing is student achievement and growth information, even from years when standardized testing occurred. 

Officials at the Tennessee Department of Education say the report card is a work in progress and that many of the blanks will be filled by the end of the calendar year. Spokeswoman Victoria Robinson said Hoonuit, the Minneapolis-based vendor hired to manage the online site, is publishing information as quickly as it’s available and packaged to fit the new design.

“Our desire is to be transparent,” Robinson said.

In the meantime, Tennessee’s main platform for sharing information about its public schools is falling short of its purpose, which is to provide parents and communities with critical facts about how schools are meeting the needs of all students.

The monthlong void in data has been noticed by local, state, and national education groups that advocate for government transparency about the quality of schools.

“This report card is a skeleton,” said Sonya Thomas, who heads a parents group called Nashville Propel. “It’s missing vital information that parents need to make education decisions for their children.”

“If they weren’t going to include the information we need to know right away, our state shouldn’t have pushed this out,” added Sarah Carpenter, leader of the Memphis Lift parents group and grandmother to 13 students in local public schools.

Tennessee’s report card is among the first released by states for the 2019-20 school year — and the skinniest so far, said Brennan McMahon Parton, director of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, a national nonprofit group that advocates for data policy and use in education. 

Her organization has been watching this year’s new crop of report cards especially closely because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, including the cancelation of standardized tests that generate important academic data each spring. 

“We expect some gaps this year because of waivers for testing and accountability, but there’s still a lot of useful information that states can share,” Parton said. “We hope Tennessee is an outlier.”

When the new design was unveiled, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said disruptions caused by the pandemic had “limited the data available to highlight on this year’s report.” But she hailed new features — including visuals, a map finder, and pages designed for easier navigation  — as improvements that “will enhance the user experience and make this tool more accessible for years to come.”

As with previous years, the latest report card features demographics for nearly 2,000 schools and 147 districts. It debuted with information about graduation rates and graduates’ readiness for college and career based on the Class of 2019. (The department separately released graduation rates for the Class of 2020 last month.)

But most pages currently contain messages that say either “not available” or “coming soon.”

For information about school- and district-level performance on state standardized tests, the report card directs visitors to a separate website where they can download spreadsheets packed with information about proficiency and growth scores from years when testing occurred.

Tennessee education advocates say that detour is not in keeping with the spirit of federal and state laws aimed at testing transparency.

“It’s too much to expect families to download complex spreadsheets and sort through 95,000 lines of data to find out how their schools are doing,” said Teresa Wasson, spokeswoman for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a research and advocacy organization founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist.

That’s the case for Carpenter, with the Memphis Lift group, when she looked up the high school attended by her granddaughter in Shelby County Schools. She found “not available” messages on pages that are supposed to present school-wide information about academic achievement, student growth, and attendance.

Sarah Carpenter is executive director of Memphis Lift, a parents advocacy group that launched in 2015. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

“What good is this? It’s not telling me anything,” Carpenter said. “I’d rather have the old report card back with the old data. At least that one told me something.”

Robinson said the education department opted to release Tennessee’s report card earlier than in previous years and incorporate information when it’s ready. Historical data on student achievement and growth could be added within days, she said. 

Information is “coming soon” about per-pupil spending and staffing details like teacher experience, credentials, and demographics. Other pages eventually will show data from previous years.

“The department will not release chronic absenteeism or English language progress for the 2019-2020 school year due to incomplete data sets (comparable to previous years), which resulted from both a shortened school year and the inability for many students to take TNReady tests in the spring,” Robinson said. “However, the historical data will be populated in November, after the achievement and growth historical data is packaged for the updated format.”

The lag in information has affected work by groups like the Education Trust in Tennessee, which advocates for raising the quality of schools for students of color and from low-income families.

“We are actively working on an analysis of per-pupil spending and what we can learn across districts to really begin thinking about education funding in Tennessee,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the nonprofit organization. “But it’s hard to analyze if the data is not there. We hope it’s back up soon — not just for us but for parents who might be shopping for schools or school boards that are looking to make decisions about budgets and staffing.”

Statewide report cards began to appear after Congress passed a 2001 law requiring states to test their students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school and report the results publicly. A 2015 federal law expanded the amount of information that must be reported to the public.

The Data Quality Campaign, which is based in Washington, D.C., believes the pandemic underscores the need for clear information and has urged states to still set a high bar for their report cards.

The group issues an annual report highlighting progress that states make to provide meaningful, easy-to-understand information to families through their report cards. The most recent report, which is based on report cards for the 2018-19 school year, was released on Wednesday and can be found here.

(Editor’s note: Historical testing data was added to Tennessee’s report card on Oct. 23, two days after the publication of this story.)

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