Tennessee legislature drops student testing requirements amid coronavirus crisis

School test tile / photo courtesy of Getty Images

Tennessee lawmakers sent a bill dropping state testing requirements while also waiving a law requiring 180 days of annual classroom instruction to Gov. Bill Lee's desk Thursday afternoon.

Both the Tennessee House and Senate unanimously approved House Bill 2818, providing relief for students, teachers and schools amid mass school closures in response to the coronavirus crisis this spring.

With Gov. Bill Lee behind the bill, lawmakers' approval means that Tennessee has dropped state testing requirements this spring, ensured that school districts still will receive full state funding for the school year and that high school seniors already on track to graduate on time will still do so, even if their classes don't resume.

House lawmakers passed House Bill 2818 during the morning session Thursday after both House and Senate bills easily passed through committees Wednesday.

"We're trying to cover all the things in this emergency measure that will put our schools, superintendents, principals, teachers and students at ease a little bit," House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, told subcommittee members on Wednesday.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn asked the Legislature to consider postponing or canceling statewide testing earlier this week after also requesting a waiver to do so from the U.S. Department of Education.

"Assessment and accountability is an integral part of the Tennessee education system that enables us to learn where students are excelling and how best to meet the needs of all students," Schwinn wrote in a letter to legislators Monday. "The Department is actively working with Governor Bill Lee and his team to develop a series of waiver options for immediate consideration by the legislature."

The bill drops requirements for school districts to administer tests to students in grades 3-8 as well as the end-of-course exams required for some high school courses.

Individual school districts can still choose to test if schools are back in session, but with many districts already slated to remain closed until at least mid-April, some lawmakers were doubtful that would even be a possibility.

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, acknowledged that some students might not return to school before the end of this academic year.

"There is a substantial likelihood that some kids won't make it back for the remainder of the school year, it could be the fall before some kids make it back to school," he said. "In general, [this legislation] wipes the slate clean for all our teachers, our students [and] our schools for the reminder of the school year."

If school districts do test students, any data gathered will be excluded by Tennessee Value-Added Assessment growth scores that are used to evaluate students and teachers.

The bill also directs the Tennessee State Board of Education to revise high school graduation requirements for the 2019-2020 school year to ensure high school seniors who were affected by closures still graduate on time. It also cancels any other required state tests for graduation.

Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, said the bill is one that "helps our teachers, a bill that helps our students, a bill that brings together Republicans and Democrats."

The bill passed unanimously after Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, withdrew a House amendment that addressed how Gov. Bill Lee's education savings accounts, or school vouchers, would be funded in the 2020-21 school year.

Lee dropped his emergency budget Wednesday, and many who are against vouchers criticized the governor for still including funding for them in next year's budget.

"My amendment deletes the vouchers from the code, so we don't have to worry about $15 million to $40 million being squandered on something that we were told last year wouldn't start this year," Mitchell told his fellow representatives. "Now we need those dollars and we're going to put this in the budget when Tennesseans' lives could be in jeopardy."

Though Mitchell withdrew the amendment and acknowledged the bill wasn't the "time or place to have to be discussing vouchers," he said the conversation would continue when the House discusses Lee's full budget.

The bill also excludes the portfolio requirement for evaluation of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers, something that Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said she had heard was a concern from "hundreds of kindergarten teachers."

There was little discussion of the bill on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon.

"I want you to be able to go home and tell your constituents, your kids, your teachers, your schools that they are not going to be hurt by this," Johnson told his fellow senators before the vote.

Schwinn thanked the Lee and lawmakers in a statement Thursday.

"These are challenging times for all of us. I appreciate the opportunity to work with the Governor's Office and legislative leaders to craft this amendment so that no student, educator, or school will be adversely affected due to the loss of instructional time caused by tornadoes and the coronavirus pandemic," Schwinn said.

"The priority must be to enact response measures to protect the health and safety of all Tennesseans. The Department is continuing to work with district leaders as they support their students, teachers, and staff during these closures," she added.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.

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