Should schools in Tennessee be held accountable when students miss too much school?
That’s one question that the State Department of Education will float during town hall meetings kicking off this week about its proposed plan for the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. State officials on Tuesday released a preview of the evolving plan, which touches on everything from school turnaround work to teacher preparation to English Language Learners.
Tennessee doesn’t intend to stray far from its five-year strategic plan outlined last year. However, the preview highlights potential changes in how the state measures school quality, provides resources to schools, and addresses low-performing schools. State officials will release the entirety of Tennessee’s first draft by the end of the month.
ESSA, which Congress passed last year to replace No Child Left Behind, gives states and local districts more flexibility in how they run schools. But the law also adds provisions such as one that requires states to identify a measurement for school quality that’s unrelated to test scores.
The first draft of Tennessee’s new schools plan was assembled with input from educators during a listening tour last spring, and from groups of advocates, policymakers and educators consulted over the summer and fall. State officials will incorporate further public feedback before submitting Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring for approval.
It’s uncertain how President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will affect states’ plans under ESSA. The new administration will be in charge of interpreting and enforcing the civil rights and accountability law, potentially rendering months of guidance from current U.S. Secretary of Education John King moot.
At the very least, the transition in Washington, D.C., has pushed the deadline for states to submit their plans back by a month to April, and to implement plans back by a year to the 2018-19 school year.
Even so, Tennessee plans to stick to the original deadline and complete its final draft by March, one year after state officials first solicited public feedback on the law.
Here are some proposed changes highlighted in the preview:
Tennessee would grade students in part based on chronic absenteeism as part of its new “opportunity to learn” metric, meant to satisfy ESSA’s requirement to evaluate schools with at least one “non-academic” measure. State officials want the new metric to show whether students are able to “grow and thrive” at their school, and might eventually incorporate a range of other data points into it, like school discipline.
Test scores still will figure prominently into how the state evaluates schools, although the preview doesn’t say how much they will count. In addition to achievement scores and growth, the state will grade schools on graduation rates, participation rates on state assessments, and for the first time, progress by English learner students in achieving English proficiency.
All of those factors will be used to assign schools with an A-F letter grade, a requirement of a 2015 state law. Although the letter grades are unrelated to ESSA, state officials are using the planning process to gather feedback on what factors should go into the grades.
“There will be multiple ways to show success, and all schools will have the opportunity to earn an ‘A,’” the preview states.
The preview suggests school improvement will become more transparent. ESSA still asks schools to identify its academically lowest 5 percent of schools, and the state would continue to issue a “priority list” of those schools every three years. But under the current draft, local districts would have more say in how to improve their low-performing schools. Currently, the state-run Achievement School District can take control of schools once they slip onto the priority list. The state proposes in coming years to give districts more time to improve schools on their own, and to clearly articulate its expectations and possible interventions for low-performing school according to set benchmarks for test scores and growth.
The state also might provide districts with more resources to improve priority schools through additional funding, as well as competitive grants.
English language learners
ESSA focuses more on English language learners than its predecessor, asking states to report on English proficiency and set clear guidelines for which students should receive English learner services. Beginning next July, Tennessee would use a new screener to determine that. For several years, the state’s English learner students have taken the WIDA assessment to test their language progress. Those scores would be publicly available for the first time under the state’s new plan, and would determine when students are able to graduate from English learner services.
Teacher and student support
Tennessee officials are using ESSA as an opportunity to focus on students’ needs beyond academics. The new U.S. law establishes a federal student support grant that districts can use for programs such as school counselors or school-based mental health services. The state’s plan would make sure that school counselors actually have time to counsel students, versus being tasked with other duties such as administering tests. Districts also would be able to apply for grants for arts, music and foreign language instruction and other enrichment opportunities.
Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires at least 95 percent of students in grades 3-11 to take end-of-year tests. Tennessee already has pared down the length of its new TNReady assessments and is looking for ways to further winnow down tests for third- and fourth-grade students. The state also is considering subbing out end-of-year tests in 11th grade for the ACT, and is looking for ways to reduce smaller assessments throughout the year for the state’s academic intervention program, called RTI, or Response to Instruction and Intervention.