Metro Nashville Public Schools is likely to request a waiver from the state Department of Education on using the upcoming TNReady tests to evaluate the district as well as its schools and its teachers.
A law passed during the special legislative session required districts to achieve at least 80 percent participation on the standardized tests or else the results would be factored into accountability measures. If a district doesn’t see at least 80% of its students in grades 3 through 12 takes the test, it can request a waiver from the state.
MNPS is almost certainly going to fail to meet the 80 percent participation requirement since 45% of its students are learning virtually and not in-person. Schools began communicating with families about the upcoming tests this week, including describing how in-persons accommodations will be made for virtual students. The tests are not allowed to be taken virtually.
The 80% participation requirement puts MNPS and Shelby County Schools in a difficult position since those are the districts with the most students who chose to learn virtually this school year. Public education stakeholders are expecting students across the country to experience learning loss due to interruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
That means MNPS must request a waiver on the participation requirement at a time when its relationship with the state is tenuous. Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn criticized the district for its spending and accounting of federal grant funds – an issue the district successfully resolved in recent weeks. More recently, state legislation pushed by Republicans would give the commissioner broad powers to take over a school district, including removing its superintendent and board members.
MNPS is also engaged in litigation over the adequacy of the state’s funding of public education.
MNPS spokesman Sean Braisted said state guidance expressly prohibits districts from offering families the option of opting out of testing. In order to meet the 80% participation requirement, the district has to hope families choose to send their children to school to take the tests after many of the students have not been in school in person since March 2020. Individual schools will begin communicating their testing plans to families no later than April 9, Braisted said.
“TNReady testing can be factored into academic magnet eligibility, but there is no penalty/consequence for not participating in testing,” Braisted said. “Our goal is for every in-person student to be tested during this window and for opportunities to be offered to families to bring their virtual students in for testing.
“While we will make a good-faith effort to have all eligible students tested, we anticipate seeking a waiver from the state on the 80% participation requirement given the large number of virtual students in our district.”
In addition to learning loss, MNPS figures to face uncertain results on the tests for other factors. The district also saw thousands of students leave the district in favor of private school, homeschool or moving to another district.
Nashville school board member John Little said he doesn’t think teachers should be held accountable for TNReady results in a year when many students are likely not to take the test. But, Little said his position on the issue is nuanced because he does want to see how students are faring after two school years of interruptions due to the pandemic.
“We all agree that we don’t want to judge teachers on the results, but I stand in the middle in that I want to see academic results so we can create a plan for academic recovery for the kids,” Little said.
Nashville school board member Abigail Tylor said she has “been keeping a wary eye” on the participation requirement.
“I am concerned about it for more than one reason,” Tylor said. “I think our schools that historically don’t do great on the test are a little worried about it. And I think schools that have large amounts of people who chose to stay virtual are worried about it.”
Tylor said she is worried that the legislation doesn’t spell out the circumstances under which a waiver should be granted, deferring instead to the discretion of the state Department of Education.
The TNReady test is important because it plays a key role in determining which schools end up on the priority list of the worst-performing schools, as well as factoring into teacher evaluations in some instances.
Tylor said children are learning at different paces because of the adjustment to virtual school, but she rejects the description “learning loss” because it implies a student will never learn something that they otherwise would have from in-person instruction.
“It highlights the opportunity gap that we’ve been screaming for the last decade, that people still want to call the achievement gap, but it’s not,” Tylor said. “It’s the opportunity gap. The families who never had to deal with technology and now have a laptop for the first time in the history of the family are going to have a harder time figuring out how to work it than the family who’s always had a computer at home.”
Districts have until June 18 to request a waiver. The state issued guidelines for waiver requests to districts in recent weeks.
The guidance stated, “… all waiver requests must be accompanied by substantive evidence of (1) meaningful engagement with families, (2) clear effort (with multiple attempts) to provide a testing opportunity for students, and (3) demonstrate strong communication that reflects significant flexibility afforded to the student for testing times and locations.”
Forcing districts to offer in-person learning was a source of tension early this calendar year, with some Republican lawmakers proposing legislation to withhold funding from districts that remained virtual. Gov. Bill Lee also bashed districts for refusing to offer in-person learning and called MNPS Director Adrienne Battle in late January to express his desire that districts be open to in-person instruction.
The irony of the state taking a hard line stance on TNReady participation is that there have been myriad problems with giving the test. The last time the state achieved results that counted were in 2019. Prior to that, an array of testing problems precluded the test from being taken or the results being factored for three years.
The district hasn’t been devoid of standardized testing to measure academic growth. The district gave students, including those learning virtually, the measures of academic progress (MAP) test earlier this school year.
Featured photo: A Dec. 2020 event at Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Central Office. (Photo: John Partipilo)