Tennessee's education chief receives praise in Washington, D.C.

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen addresses the Hamilton County Board of Education in May 2017.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander on Tuesday praised education leaders in Tennessee, Louisiana and New Mexico for having "taken the most advantage of the flexibility" afforded to them under a 2015 federal law that replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

"In my opinion, Tennessee has once again stepped up to that challenge," said Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, during a hearing that featured Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and other education chiefs.

The hearing focused on the impact of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan measure Alexander helped fashion.

The act has "put states back in the driver's seat for decisions on how to help their students," Alexander said.

photo Lamar Alexander

For years, states and local school systems complained about the No Child Left Behind Act of the 1990s. Every Student Succeeds, which Alexander helped shape, was intended to address those criticisms while continuing to hold states accountable for student success in failing schools and providing real help for low-income and minority students and those with special needs.

Every Student Succeeds limits the federal government's role in public education by granting states autonomy in evaluation of school and teacher performance. It also promises to curtail unnecessary student testing at the state and local levels.

Under Tennessee's ESSA plan, schools will have a new accountability framework by adopting an A-F letter grading system. The system is based on several indicators, including out-of-school suspensions and a variety of student achievement and growth data. The plan also creates a school improvement plan that will allow for a more tailored approach to turn around the state's priority schools.

Alexander singled out Tennessee's Ready Graduate initiative as an example of the state's success.

The initiative measures the percentage of students earning diplomas and whether they meet measures of success that boost the likelihood of succeeding in college and entering the workplace or the military.

McQueen told the panel that Every Student Succeeds helped Tennessee press forward more easily on already envisioned programs.

"We have the flexibility to do more that is best and right for our kids," she said, "but it also holds us accountable for equitable outcomes in our school."

She also said the state is better able to choose "evidence-based interventions" to address the lowest 5 percent of low-performing schools in Tennessee.

And the state is working with focus groups to determine how best to help disabled, low-income and minority students and those who teach them.

Alexander on Tuesday also praised initiatives of other state school leaders including Christopher Ruszkowski, of New Mexico, and John White, of Louisiana, who both attended the hearing.

White pointed to work with teachers that includes establishing a mentor program and tying teachers' ratings to targets set for students. He stressed that all states should be learning lessons from others like Massachusetts, as well as Japan and Singapore.

"An 'A' in Louisiana should be an 'A' in any state in this country," he said.

Committee Democrats, meanwhile, criticized what they say new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is doing with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The law was deliberately set up with "guardrails" for states "to keep students from falling through the cracks," said ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Murray voiced concerns DeVos is weakening the guardrails in several different areas, including a new lack of transparency on departmental feedback on states' plans that are up for federal approval. Moreover, she said, DeVos' agency has approved some plans that aren't ESSA-compliant.

"State plans still have to comply with the federal guardrails in [the law]," Murray said.

She also questioned why DeVos wasn't invited to the meeting, and pressed Alexander to bring her before the panel at a later meeting. Alexander told Murray to take the issue up with him privately.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.