Tennessee legislature votes to shelve TNReady testing amid public health emergency

Tennessee lawmakers voted Thursday to remove the burden of testing and other government mandates on school communities this year as classes were canceled statewide due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

The unanimous votes in both chambers mean that Tennessee is poised to drop state testing requirements this spring and waive the required 180 days of classroom instruction. Gov. Bill Lee is expected to sign the legislation quickly.

Students, teachers, and schools won’t be penalized for choosing not to participate in state testing that includes the TNReady assessment for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high school students.

Other provisions ensure that districts will receive full state funding for the school year, even if students cannot be present, and high school seniors who are on track will graduate on time, even if their classes are canceled. 

The sweeping emergency legislation was crafted this week as the governor urged all districts to shutter public schools for the remainder of March to try to stem the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory illness. Many school systems have closed until mid-April — when state testing is scheduled to begin — and closures could be extended for much longer, possibly the rest of the school year.

“We tried to cover everything,” Education Committee Chairman Mark White told the House. “We hope that we come back in in a couple of weeks, but this bill will cover all the anxiety that was going on across our state in our public schools.”

In the past week, the steady spread of the virus across Tennessee made it increasingly clear that it was neither possible nor feasible to test this spring with classes canceled. The public health emergency was exacerbated when deadly tornadoes ripped across Middle Tennessee on March 4, damaging or totaling school buildings in four counties.

On Monday, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education on federal testing requirements and related accountability mandates.

If schools or districts decide to voluntarily test their students, the legislation says the results must 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.

In addition, the state will not require teachers in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and non-tested grades and subjects to be evaluated using “portfolio” or alternative models this school year — unless they result in higher evaluation scores. The legislation leaves it up to districts to decide whether educators must submit those this school year.

“We’re hoping that their superintendents don’t require [portfolios],” said Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who said she heard from more than a hundred kindergarten teachers this week about the matter.

Tennessee’s 2,500 student teachers won’t be penalized either. A provision added to the legislation on Wednesday gives the state Board of Education flexibility to issue teacher licenses to student teachers who were not able to complete their classroom placement requirements this spring due to school closures.