Sweeping Tennessee legislation filed to drop TNReady tests, allow fewer instructional days as schools close due to COVID-19

Tennessee legislative leaders filed a proposal Tuesday to drop state testing and waive the required 180 days of classroom instruction this year as schools shutter statewide without certainty of when they’ll reopen amid a public health emergency.

The proposal aims to lift the burden of testing and other state mandates from public school communities disrupted by the ongoing spread of COVID-19, as well as deadly twisters that shredded parts of Middle Tennessee earlier this month.

The sweeping measure was filed after two days of talks by leaders of the General Assembly, the Department of Education, and school districts.

“We’re trying to cover everything we can think of,” said House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, who is carrying the legislation in his chamber. “This is uncharted territory, and we just don’t know where we’re going.”

The first votes will come Wednesday in committees as the General Assembly seeks to handle essential business before recessing by Saturday.

Schools are shutting down statewide this week at the encouragement of Gov. Bill Lee, who asked Monday that all in-person classes be canceled through the end of the month.

The legislation says the health and safety risks from COVID-19 “are not fully understood and may necessitate school closures beyond March 31.”

White hopes students will be back in school in April but acknowledged that may not happen.

Among pressing issues are required state tests scheduled to start in mid-April unless the legislature acts to halt them due to two state emergencies prompting school closures. In anticipation of that action, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn requested a waiver Monday from the U.S. Department of Education on federal testing requirements.

Tennessee tests that would be scrapped include TNReady for grades 3-8 and end-of-course assessments for high school students, as well as others for English learners and several alternate assessments.

Schools or districts could still voluntarily test their students, but the results would be excluded from students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and A-F letter grades being given to schools this year for the first time — unless they result in higher scores and grades.

“The General Assembly seeks to ensure that school districts, schools, teachers, and students are held harmless from testing requirements and accountability measures to provide some relief to Tennesseans during these difficult and uncertain times,” the legislation reads.

In addition, teachers in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and non-tested grades and subjects would not be evaluated using “portfolio” or alternative models this school year — again unless they result in higher evaluation scores. White said ongoing problems with those models led to that addition in the legislation.

For the 2019-20 school year, other provisions of the proposal would:

  • Ensure that districts receive full state funding for the school year, even if students cannot be present;
  • Drop the requirement that high school students must pass a civics test to graduate;
  • Drop the requirement that 11th-graders take an exam to assess their readiness for college;
  • Require the state Board of Education to revise requirements so that no senior who is on track and eligible would be prevented from graduating on time because of school closings.

Early reaction to the proposal was positive.

“I think this resolves a lot of concerns by students and educators,” said JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

You can read the full proposal below: