Extension please

Sponsor of Tennessee’s A-F school grading law wants launch postponed

Last year, Rep. Glen Casada proposed that all Tennessee schools be assigned a single A-F grade starting in the 2017-18 school year. His bill became law — but now he wants it delayed.

The Williamson County Republican and House majority leader says the state should hold off because this is the first year that elementary and middle school students will take its new test.

Last spring, the state canceled TNReady for grades 3-8, prolonging the transition to an assessment that is supposed to be more rigorous. The cancellation came just a month after Gov. Bill Haslam signed the law requiring the Tennessee Department of Education to develop a school grading system by this fall. Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“I’m a big believer in transparency,” Casada said this week, “but this year’s data is not up to standard.”

Casada said that Department of Education officials are moving ahead with the grading system, which is now built into the state’s plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, but are listening to feedback.

Officials from Williamson County Schools, the system in Casada’s district, are among school leaders with a separate set of concerns. They worry that under the new A-F grading system schools with high test scores will post lower grades if they don’t show growth. The school board in Collierville, a wealthy Memphis suburb, voted this week to lobby against the new grading system for the same reasons.

That’s the inverse of concerns discussed when the bill was snaking through the legislature last year. Then, supporters considered it a common-sense aid to help parents understand school quality. Because test scores often correlate with wealth, critics charged that schools in affluent, high-performing districts like Williamson would always get As, and that schools with more poor students would get lower grades.

The Tennessee Department of Education officials took such concerns into account when they drafted the proposal for the grading system, which was part of their ESSA draft plan. ESSA focuses more on school-level accountability than its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. In the draft, both growth and raw achievement would be part of schools’ final grade, with the idea that schools won’t have an edge because of their demographics.

The performance of subgroups such as racial minorities also will be a determining factor in the ratings.

School leaders nationwide are facing the challenge of conveying school quality with a single letter grade as states and cities move to adopt such grading systems. Earlier this week, leaders of high-achieving districts in Texas urged state officials to repeal a new A-F system, but their lieutenant governor said it’s here to stay.

Michael Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute, says developing a fair and relevant grading system is a balancing act.

“If high-achieving schools end up getting low grades, people won’t trust the grading system,” he said.

But Tennessee officials say that historically high-ranked schools have nothing to worry about under the state’s proposal and that all schools will have the opportunity to make an A.

“… We were intentional about engaging all types of districts across Tennessee because this framework has to be able to work for the variety of schools we have,” said department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

School choice

It started with vouchers and charter schools. Now Indiana’s exploring more ways for kids to learn outside traditional public schools.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Through its voucher and charter school programs, Indiana lawmakers have for years embraced strategies to promote school choice. Now, a new proposal that would let kids take classes outside their public schools could expand those efforts even further.

The program, which is already gaining attention nationally for being at the forefront of school choice strategies, is making its Indiana debut in recently filed House Bill 1007, authored by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero.

The bill lays out the basics of what looks kind of like a voucher program, where students can use public dollars to pay for outside schooling — one course at a time. The “course access” program would allow students to choose certain classes to take outside their public school, such as an advanced physics course, Behning said. Then, those course providers would get a cut of a school or district’s state funding.

So far, there are no specifics on who providers might be, but Behning said they could also include public schools that have online or distance learning programs set up.

“It really makes sense when you talk about some of the smaller districts we have,” said Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman. “Even in some of our urban districts, with some of the shortages we have, It makes sense to have some availability.”

Advocates, such as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said in a 2014 report that it levels the playing field between students, citing that students from low-income families, those who attend rural schools or minority students might have fewer opportunities than their wealthier urban or suburban counterparts.

But critics oppose the program for many of the same reasons they oppose a voucher program. The programs can funnel money away from public schools, typically taking a cut of a school’s state tuition dollars to pay whomever provides the outside classes. In some states, that has been for-profit education providers and online schools.

Online schools across Indiana and the United States have failed to demonstrate widespread academic achievement, but they remain a choice that a growing number of Indiana students and students across the country are turning to.

Under Indiana’s proposed bill, the Indiana Department of Education would be responsible for creating a list of classes for the program by June 30, 2018. A provider could be any one that offers these courses, through any method, including online instruction.

A course tuition fee would also need to be determined. Behning said it’s too early yet to say how much that fee might be, but according to state data, Utah districts paid providers between $200 and $350 per course in 2015 depending on the class being offered.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she already knows of districts that can engage in partnerships with other types of educational providers without this legislation.

“It sounds like they are creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist if there is in fact a way for schools to already do something like this,” Meredith said.

Meredith also worries that by encouraging schools and districts to go to outside providers, it could exacerbate the teacher shortage. There’s little need to hire a licensed teacher if you can outsource the class, she said.

“We need to watch out for the details and ask the question of what problem is this trying to solve,” Meredith said.

Stay tuned

Tonight Indiana’s new governor will give his first state of the state address. What can we expect to hear about education?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Tonight Gov. Eric Holcomb will address Hoosiers in the annual State of the State address.

Holcomb so far has had a fairly light education policy agenda and K-12 budget with increases that some lawmakers say are not enough. With this year’s emphasis on road funding and transportation, it could be that education won’t figure prominently in his speech.

Earlier this month, Holcomb proposed sending an additional $280 million to Indiana schools — an increase of 3 percent. It would double the amount the state spends on preschool tuition in 2018 and 2019 in the original five counties, going from $10 million per year to $20 million. Holcomb’s preschool proposal differs from the priorities of other Republican legislative leaders.

Aside from the $280 million increase, Holcomb’s budget plan would also set aside $1 million per year for coordinating science, technology, engineering and math programs across the state and $1 million per year, with the possibility of federal matching grants, for districts to support internet access.

Another main part of his education agenda would be making Indiana’s elected schools chief a governor-appointed position beginning in 2021.

Former Gov. Mike Pence’s speech last year made many references to education, through ISTEP, A-F grades and the consequences they can have for schools and teachers.

The speech begins at 7 p.m. and can be streamed online. Follow Chalkbeat reporter @ShainaRC on Twitter for more.