Tennessee schools might be “hiding dropouts” and gaming the accountability system. That’s the finding of a recent report by the data-centric journalism group ProPublica. The report, while focused mostly on Florida, suggests schools all over the country (again, possibly in TN) may be pushing low-performing students, many of whom are black, into “alternative schools,” as a way of preventing their low test scores and graduation rates from dragging down the average.
But the potential side effect is even more disturbing. Thanks to the wording in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, these students, who are mostly black young men, don’t need to be counted at all. We can disappear them from our state’s accountability system with no questions asked.
Alternative schools aren’t necessarily bad. They were originally created to help students who have behavioral issues, or who just don’t do well in a traditional system–some students really do need an alternative pathway. But if the motive for transferring any of these students is to put on a front, and allow schools to act like they’re doing a better job helping kids then they actually are, then that’s a problem.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot we still don’t know. There’s not enough data in the report to say whether or not it’s happening in Tennessee, though they do flag Nashville as a place that is of concern. But we’ve seen this kind of thing come up before. It was just a little over a year ago when a group of teachers raised concerns that students were being put into credit recovery programs so they would not take year end tests, which beefed-up the district’s overall testing performance. A student also filed suit (now dismissed) based on the same allegations.
So it’s worth raising the question: Is there something fishy going on in Nashville schools?
While I am not interested in stirring up a bee’s nest about the testing behavior in Nashville, I can’t help but be concerned. I can’t help but wonder if someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Or if the state is creating an environment where that’s easier to do.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have unbelievable latitude in the definition of a school. Tennessee’s plan takes advantage of that flexibility and explicitly says in its state plan that we won’t hold ourselves accountable for alternative schools:
“ESSA requires states to meaningfully differentiate public schools on an annual basis. Tennessee will include all public schools within this framework, excluding schools that only serve K–2 students, or adult high schools, or schools that only serve students with special needs and/or disabilities, or alternative schools, or CTE schools.”
I see two problems with this. First, ESSA gives states authority to allow districts the freedom to create warehouses specifically for hiding marginal to poor performing students — free from accountability. Second, and the most chilling issue, is the notion that the students most likely to be hidden under the ESSA provision are black students in general, and young black men, in particular.
What Gets Measured, Gets Done
Based on 2015 student data, nearly every student sent to a Nashville alternative school was black. Under ESSA, students enrolled in alternative schools will not be counted. That means it’s possible that within a couple of years, we could see larger swaths of our black students dropping off the radar for states. They won’t be in schools where the state will ever try to intervene. They won’t be considered when we talk about the academic progress of black students, and they won’t be celebrated when they do make progress. Conceivably, in two years, we could experience large swaths of black males missing from the state’s accountability framework.
For me, there’s no obvious reason why we wouldn’t count these kids. Don’t they matter too? Yet federal law allows it and states like Tennessee, and many others, are all-too-happy to jump on board. Tennessee never explains in their state plan why it’s okay. That worries me. I worry that we’re building a system that creates a big dark hiding place for certain kids so schools can keep their reputations up and keep kids who probably need our attention the most out of sight and out of mind.