‘Remove the high stakes of state testing’ during pandemic, Memphis superintendent says to governor

Cathy Whitehead, Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year, is a third-grade teacher from Chester County.
Tennessee education officials rely heavily on student test scores for teacher evaluations that determine pay raises, and to decide when to intervene in low-performing schools. (Expect More, Achieve More)

Update, July 15, 2020: The mayors of Shelby County, Arlington, Collierville, and Germantown have also sent a letter to the state asking Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to request a federal testing waiver.

The leader of Tennessee’s largest district asked the governor to either cancel state testing for the 2020-21 school year or at least “disarm the punitive nature” of the exams, known as TNReady. 

Superintendent Joris Ray sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee on June 30 and compared teachers with firefighters running into burning buildings amid the uncertainties of returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tennessee education officials rely heavily on student test scores for teacher evaluations that determine pay raises, and to decide when to intervene in low-performing schools. That dependence has been a source of controversy for years.

“We owe it to them to remove the high stakes of state testing so that they can focus on what matters most — doing whatever is necessary to help students reach their full potential,” the letter said.

Proponents say canceling tests would relieve pressure on students and teachers, but state leaders say they need to know how students are progressing after a spring of school closures and inconsistent remote learning across the state. The governor recommended closing schools in March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and the Memphis district was the first in the state to close. 

The request mirrors concerns by education leaders in Georgia, Michigan, and South Carolina who are considering asking that testing requirements be waived by the U.S. Department of Education. Federal officials require annual assessments and accountability for teachers and schools based on the results in order for districts to receive federal funding.

Ray said state tests this year would not produce meaningful results because of the unusual nature of the upcoming school year.

“To juxtapose known and unknown complexities of this year with the presumption that a state test will somehow provide a valuable measure of a teacher’s effectiveness or a school’s performance is disingenuous,” the letter read. 

In an email, Ray copied Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, state lawmakers representing the Memphis area, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

In a joint statement, Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education said the state “must be able to measure how our students are progressing to know what areas they need to focus on and where support is needed.”

Rep. Mark White of Memphis, the chairman of the House education committee, said he’s heard similar requests from many educators across the state, but stressed the state needs some measure of learning since students have been out of school longer than usual. 

Superintendent Joris Ray, left, and Gov. Bill Lee, right. (Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal and TN.gov)

“We’re not in session right now, but rest assured that we will deal with this when the time is appropriate,” he told Chalkbeat. “I would urge teachers to get back in school and do the best you can, but we hear you loud and clear.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis said she would be open to dropping the consequences for poor test scores this year because “learning is going to look so different this year.”

“It’s not about holding a test over anybody’s head,” she said. “All I want is to see where kids are so their schools and teachers know how best to meet their needs at this time.”

There is precedent for Tennessee canceling state testing, though never this early in the school year. A slew of technical issues with the online test prompted state officials to cancel testing in 2016 and hold harmless teachers and students for test results in 2018. The pandemic caused another cancelation this spring.  

In order to cancel tests this school year, state lawmakers would need to agree and the Tennessee Department of Education would need to submit a waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education.

Ray announced his intention to petition the state to cancel testing at a parent listening session last month. School board chairwoman Miska Clay Bibbs said she agrees with the superintendent’s letter. 

“In the year 2020, nothing about it is normal so how can you use that in a punitive way?” she said. She noted the virus’ spread is worse than when districts shut down in March. 

“The mental anxiety is at an all-time high,” she said. “A state test can make this even more stressful for you because it’s such a punitive type thing.”

Below is the full letter:

Chalkbeat reporter Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.

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