Hamilton County school board calls on lawmakers to overturn system used to grade schools

Hamilton County school board calls on lawmakers to overturn system used to grade schools

February 22nd, 2018 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

In this July 2017 staff file photo, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, left, and board members Steve Highlander, center, and Karista Mosely Jones take part in a Hamilton County Board of Education meeting.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Last week, the Hamilton County school board joined other school districts across the state in opposing a system to grade schools.

The board voted 7-2 to approve a resolution calling on legislators to overturn the A-F grading system for Tennessee schools signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2016.

"Hamilton County joins a growing resistance to the model being proposed by the Tennessee Department of Education," reads the resolution first introduced last month by board Chairman Steve Highlander.

The grading system, which would go into effect after the 2017-18 school year, assigns letter grades, similar to those received by their students, to Tennessee schools. The system, though not specifically outlined in the newest federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), complies with the guidelines set forth by the act. The law, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, leaves drafting grading scales up to individual states.

Document: Resolution on A-F Grading System

Read the proposed resolution regarding the A-F Grading System for consideration by the Hamilton County Board of Education.

When Tennessee's law was passed, the state Department of Education adopted the system into it's ESSA plan, which was approved later that year.

Proponents have argued that it is an easy-to-understand accountability system for parents and community members, but critics argue such grades will oversimplify or unfairly label schools.

"I'm not saying we don't need strong assessments. We do," Highlander said. "... I hate to do so by negatively labeling schools and students though."

Hamilton County joins other districts, including Knox County, Metro Nashville, Hawkins County, Oak Ridge and Bradley County, among others in Tennessee and nationwide, in opposing such a system.

"Sixteen states that have already started using the system have already dropped it," Highlander said. "In nearly every case, not all, but nearly all of them, the 'F' schools are lined up pretty closely with schools that are highly free and reduced lunch. If a kid is in a school that is constantly labeled an 'F,' they will be unmotivated and wonder 'Why try?'"

Other school board members at last week's meeting echoed Highlander's sentiment, agreeing that the system further stigmatized lower performing schools and students.

Since the bill's adoption, the state has encouraged dialogue with districts, school boards, teachers and advocates, including holding town hall meetings to discuss the implementation of the grading system. From those conversations, the department has established four guiding principals which includes giving all schools the opportunity to earn an "A," rewarding growth, ensuring transparent, public reporting and ensuring all students and indicators (such as special student groups like African American, Hispanic, English language learners, etc.) are represented, according to state officials.

"State law requires the department to publish A-F grades after the 2017-18 school year, and federal law also requires us to meaningfully differentiate among our schools," said state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in a statement. "Knowing these requirements, we have sought feedback from thousands of Tennesseans on how to establish this system in a way that is fair and that helps families understand how their child's school — or their future school — is performing. We continue to welcome feedback."

As for whether or not school board voices will be heard, legislation that would replace the grading system has not gained traction yet in the legislature.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.