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New federal education law gives states more flexibility — but will Tennessee use it?

President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.
Amanda Lucidon/The White House

Calling the nation’s new education law a “Christmas present to 50 million American children,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has said the Every Student Succeeds Act will launch “a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement.” But in the Tennessee Republican’s home state, the overhaul is not expected to change much for its million public school students — at least not at first.

That’s because the massive rewrite of No Child Left Behind, signed last week by President Obama, comes on the heels of Tennessee’s own massive redesign of its K-12 system through the federal Race to the Top competition. With new autonomy given states under the new federal law, there’s no immediate movement afoot in Tennessee to change course significantly from its current game plan centered on higher standards, accountability and turnaround strategies for the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Eventually, however, the new law could open the door to changes in testing and how schools and teachers are held accountable — but only if Tennessee leaders decide to make that shift of their own accord.

And there’s no indication that the state would embrace that flexibility — even with mounting calls from school districts to skip using test scores in teacher evaluations as the state transitions to its new TNReady test this year. The state already enjoyed more freedom in areas of accountability and school turnaround because of its waiver from No Child Left Behind — which had stipulated that all students must be on grade level by 2014, a target no state came close to meeting.

“It’s really unclear if the Tennessee Department of Education is bound by a lot of provisions it was waiting to be unshackled from,” said Jason Grissom, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education in Nashville. “My guess is that this change will have bigger impacts in other states.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues requirements from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) like annual testing for grades 3-8 and requiring special attention for schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent on annual tests. Those schools are known as “priority schools” in Tennessee.

But ESSA also allows states new flexibilities, like the ability to forgo using student test score data in teacher and principal evaluations, which states were required to do to get waivers from NCLB in recent years. Tennessee was one of the first states to embrace using student test score data in teacher evaluations, and state officials have been firm that they believe it’s a fair measure.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she’s optimistic about the new law’s impact as it begins to roll out next fall.

“Tennessee is in a remarkably positive place in making the transition to ESSA as we have created a solid foundation of rigorous standards, aligned assessment, increased accountability, and a focus on low-performing schools, “ she said in a statement.

The ESSA provides funding for training teachers on literacy instruction — a growing priority in Tennessee — where reading scores have stagnated while math scores have inched up.

But realistically, the new law’s statewide impact may be more about the changing mindset in education to acknowledge factors that testing alone can’t measure. One provision requires states to rate schools based on at least one non-academic measure, such as attendance and school climate, as well as by test scores.

“There’s increasing concern that academic measures don’t do a sufficient job in capturing the performance of schools,” Grissom said. “There’s a lot of concern that there could be schools that are having very high test performance but they’re doing it by implementing draconian instructional strategies. Those schools might be very unenjoyable, uninspiring places. This is a step in the direction of trying to hold schools accountable for students’ experiences.”

Here are some key differences between the old law and the new, and what Tennessee does now:

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