Tennessee education commissioner explains new A to F grading system for schools

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen talks about the state's plan for education Tuesday night at Orchard Knob Elementary School. The plan is called "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA).
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen talks about the state's plan for education Tuesday night at Orchard Knob Elementary School. The plan is called "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA).

In an effort to increase accountability, the state will start giving schools a grade of A to F.

The new system was discussed during a community meeting Tuesday night at Orchard Knob Elementary School. The state's plan places a spotlight on equity to ensure all students are making progress and are prepared to be successful in life after graduation.

photo Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen talks to attendees at a community feedback session Tuesday night at the Orchard Knob Elementary School. McQueen introduced the state's plan for education called "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA).
photo Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, standing right, talks to an accountability breakout group following an hour-long powerpoint presentation Tuesday night at the Orchard Knob Elementary School. McQueen introduced the state's plan for education called "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA) at the community feedback session.

"We've got to do a better job of setting our students up for success on these pathways that lead to success and workforce readiness," Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said.

Nakia Towns, the state's assistant commissioner of data and research, said each school's grade will account for how students performed overall and also will disaggregate the data to account for subgroups such as race, socioeconomic status and students with disabilities.

The system the state is proposing allows for schools that are not posting the highest proficiency scores to earn an A ranking, making the playing field fairer for schools with large shares of children living in poverty, as academic progress is also factored into the measure.

"All schools have an opportunity to earn an A," Towns said. "Poverty is not destiny."

Schools performing in the state's bottom 5 percent are considered priority schools, and these schools will automatically earn an F unless they have posted significant academic growth as measured by the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

Currently, about 13 percent of the state's schools could earn an A for raw student achievement scores, and 11 percent of schools could earn the grade for academic growth, Towns said. About 7 percent of schools accomplished both, she added.

Chronic absentee rates will also be used as a non-academic accountability measure. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss more than 10 percent of the school year, which amounts to 18 days of class. Schools will be held accountable for having low absentee rates or for their success in drastically reducing absenteeism.

In the future, the state hopes to include other metrics in this non-academic accountability measure, which several teachers in the audience favored, saying that students and schools should be evaluated by more than a standardized test score.

The state is also continuing its push to better prepare students for life after high school. It will hold schools and districts accountable for how well they are preparing students through a "ready graduate" indicator, which will look at graduation rates, ACT scores, and whether students are completing early post-secondary courses like Advanced Placement classes, dual-enrollment courses, or earning an industry certification.

Less than 40 percent of the state's 2015 graduates had any early post-secondary opportunity during high school, according to state data.

McQueen voiced excitement for the industry partnerships in Chattanooga and the work taking place to prepare students to join the workforce.

"I believe this is a city that understands [the need to prepare students for life after graduation,]" McQueen said. "We have to keep setting high expectations for students that align with the workforce."

After the presentation, people attended breakout sessions on accountability, school improvement and general education topics.

In one room, people questioned how the state decides to take over low-performing schools by placing them in the Achievement School District.

Five Hamilton County schools - Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary - are likely eligible for state takeover next year.

Hamilton County school board member Karitsa Mosley Jones asked what the state considers when it looks at "feeder pattern success" as a factor determining whether it takes control of a school.

Hillary Knudson, special assistant to the commissioner, said it's up to the state's discretion, and it takes into account the assets a school has and how the other schools its students feed into are performing.

"We are saying how likely is this school to be successful," she answered.

Hamilton County Schools received about $13 million in grants and extra support during the past four years to help improve its five priority schools, but has posted little progress.

If any Hamilton County Schools are taken over by the state, they will begin a planning year next school year and will be placed fully under the achievement district's control in 2018.

Knudson said funds for planning come from the state and federal dollars, and that each priority school in the state will also receive small planning grants to help develop a path for future growth.

"We know needs vary from school to school," Knudson said. The state's goal during both achievement district and priority school planning is to help identify what supports are needed to improve the school.

In another room, LaFrederick Thirkill, principal at Orchard Knob Elementary, said factors such as poverty and violence impact his students and their results on standardized tests.

Towns said the state is aware of factors that influence students and knows that education is "a human endeavor." The state intends for assessments to be used as tools for improvement and not as something punitive. But several educators seemed to disagree.

A parent voiced concern about the state only tracking subgroups of 30 students or more at a school, saying this allows for children to be overlooked.

Towns agreed that in some cases a subgroup of students may not be represented if it's a small number at a school, but said overall the district is still held responsible for these students, as they appear in its accountability data.

Tuesday's meeting was the state's sixth and final community meeting to discuss its new education plan, which the state will submit to the U.S. Department of Education for approval later this spring. The nation's new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, replaces the embattled No Child Left Behind legislation and requires each state to develop its own plan for education.

People are still able to give feedback on the education plan through the end of the month by visiting the state's website.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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