Tennessee leaders passed legislation last week 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 the current public health emergency.
The Student/Teacher Relief Act 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 legislation says the health and safety risks from COVID-19 “are not fully understood and may necessitate school closures beyond March 31.” White says that he hopes students will be back in school in April, but acknowledged that may not happen.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn requested a waiver last 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 legislation include:
•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.