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Memphis superintendent will ask the state to cancel testing for 2020-21 school year

An empty classroom
Laptops are open and ready for students to take state tests in 2018.
Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

Superintendent Joris Ray plans to ask the Tennessee Department of Education to cancel state testing for the 2020-21 academic year as students and teachers return to a school year full of uncertainty this fall.

Ray, who leads Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, announced his intentions to parents during a listening session on how schools should reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Superintendent Joris Ray at a press conference in May.
Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

“I’ll go on record to say that we will petition the Commissioner of Education, and I hope the board supports me: No standardized tests for school year 2020-21,” he said, prompting applause from the small crowd at Douglass High School on Monday evening. Ray said he plans to present the request to school board members next week.

His upcoming petition is the first reported in Tennessee from a superintendent about testing next year, though some educators and parents have already been using social media to call for the state assessment to be canceled. The state’s annual assessment, known as TNReady, was canceled for the 2019-20 school year as districts closed their buildings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The state would have to take many steps to cancel testing for a second straight year. If Tennessee leaders agree, the state would have to seek a federal waiver, since federal education law requires all states to administer an annual assessment in order to receive federal funding for schools. Officials in Georgia last week requested such a waiver for the upcoming school year.

A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson told Chalkbeat that it hasn’t yet made a decision about Georgia’s request.

“We will continue to work with state and local education leaders on the flexibilities and supports they might need next school year, but the Department has nothing new to announce on this particular subject at this time,” the statement said.

The Tennessee State Board of Education, which the legislature has tasked with developing emergency policies related to coronavirus, is expected to begin talks with Penny Schwinn, the state education commissioner, and other education partners about possible adjustments to testing and accountability as more classroom disruptions are anticipated.

Sara Morrison poses for a portrait with the Nashville skyline in the background. Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

Sara Morrison, the state board’s executive director, said it’s “too soon to be making that call.”

“I think there will be a lot of questions around accountability and how any kind of testing might be used this year,” she said Tuesday. “But it is also going to be very important to understand where students are academically as they come back into school this fall and where they end up at the end of the year so that we’re learning about what works during this time.”

Ray’s request wouldn’t nix all tests next year. Ray has said Shelby County Schools plans to test students when they return in the fall, whether in person or online. That way, teachers will know what material they need to review, since many students did not receive the same level of instruction when buildings were closed as they would have in person.

But the request would challenge the state’s reliance on test results to evaluate teachers and schools, a hot-button issue across Tennessee.

Ray said Monday that he would use the opportunity to foster further conversation on the “validity and the reliability of standardized tests.”

The request is likely to resonate with Shelby County Schools board members, who urged state lawmakers in 2018 “to eliminate the Tennessee Department of Education’s use and reliance on TNReady.”

Districts across the state have struggled with TNReady since 2016, when the state’s new online assessment failed to launch. Other problems with scoring and timely delivery of results followed, and 2018 testing was marred by more technical problems.

Shelby County Schools officials say the state’s reliance on test results and the steep consequences for schools with low scores actually harm the district’s ability to improve them.

The school board is scheduled to meet next on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. via videoconference. You can livestream the meeting here.

Chalkbeat reporters Marta W. Aldrich and Matt Barnum contributed to this story.

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