New Tennessee rules could mean no more grades, no required attendance, no teacher effectiveness scores

Teacher effectiveness scores would be officially shelved this school year and high school students would receive their semester grades as of March 20 under a slew of emergency rules drafted for Tennessee schools because of the pandemic.

Staff for the state Board of Education also recommended Tuesday that districts can take attendance for students thrust into remote learning mode this spring, but that schools can’t issue unexcused absences or report students as truant for failing to participate.

The nine-member board is expected to approve the recommendations on Thursday during a special conference call meeting.

The proposed rules tackle a range of difficult policy questions that all states are grappling with due to the unprecedented disruption to public education by the coronavirus. With schools shuttered for weeks to months, the issues range from what to do about an estimated 71,433 seniors in Tennessee’s Class of 2020 to state requirements regarding students who are English language learners or in special education.

“We’ve been trying to balance the need for flexibility at the local level and the need for uniformity at the state level,” said Executive Director Sara Morrison, noting that the board’s troubleshooting work is likely to continue.

“We absolutely expect to come together multiple times over the next few months to hammer out more issues as the situation evolves,” she said.

The board has authority to address those issues under an emergency law signed last week by Gov. Bill Lee. The law already stipulates that districts do not have to administer state tests or provide the required 180 days of instruction.

Here are summaries of some of the proposed rules:

Teacher evaluations. While Tennessee has one of the nation’s most comprehensive systems for holding educators accountable, teachers would generally get a pass this year, since the legislature was clear that they should be held harmless for events beyond their control. The state would not generate scores to gauge their overall effectiveness, and uncompleted classroom observations would be waived. Districts would have discretion whether to use existing evaluation data for personnel-related decisions, or just to give feedback.

Calculating grades. High school students would receive their spring semester grades as of March 20, the date when all Tennessee schools were closed at the governor’s urging. However, students in districts that are providing remote learning would have the opportunity to improve their grades. “They could only move forward, not backward,” Morrison said. The state’s uniform grading policy is for the purpose of determining college-level admission, placement, and scholarships. The new rule would not affect local grading policies used to issue report cards and determine awards for students in all grades.

RELATED: Some seniors could miss out on HOPE scholarships under grading proposal

High school graduation. The state-calculated grades would be used to determine if a senior has met Tennessee’s graduation requirements. Another recommendation reduces the number of required credits from 22 to 20 to accommodate about 5,000 seniors on non-traditional “block” schedules. Those students had not begun those final classes when schools closed in March. In addition, seniors who did not take their required ACT or SAT college entrance exams would not be penalized. “We’ve really tried to partner on a fast timeline with our higher ed partners,” Morrison said of those recommendations. “Everyone understands the position that our seniors are in.”

Attendance. Districts could take attendance during their remote learning programs in order to engage students and gauge the success of those programs. However, lack of attendance could not be used punitively.

Special education. Current rule gives districts 60 days to complete the initial evaluation of a student for special education services. The new rule would extend that deadline by the length of the stay-at-home order that a district is under. Districts also could ask the state education department for 30 more days beyond that.

English language learners. Districts would have more flexibility to determine what level of specialized instruction that students should receive if they’re from non-English speaking homes and not proficient in English, as well as when those students could exit the basic language-learning program for this school year. Currently, those decisions are based on the results of an annual language assessment that was to be conducted between Feb. 18 and April 3. However, many of those students did not complete the four-part test because it takes multiple days to administer. Under the proposed rule, decisions for those students could be made based on existing data and individual learning plans.

Teacher licensure. Colleges of education and other educator prep programs could recommend licensure for candidates even if they did not complete their required 15 weeks of classroom teaching time. And because testing centers are closed indefinitely, prospective educators who could not complete their licensure exams could receive a one-year license that would expire in August of 2021, giving them more than a year to fulfill that requirement. Tennessee’s teacher training programs produce from 3,000 to 3,500 educators each year.