Tennessee’s Plan for Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Due Today

Today is the first of two deadlines states must submit final Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans and Tennessee, with 19 other states, has promised to honor the April 3rd deadline.

By most accounts, Tennessee has a sound plan which no doubt stems from the work of the past few years beginning with the implementation of the 2nd highest standards in the nation and ending with Race to the Top. The state that once owned real estate at the bottom of virtually all education rankings, finds itself rising amongst the ranks of those to watch.

Though our state leaders appear to have it all figured out, we know that the question of labeling a school by growth or raw performance indicators is still on the table. Last year, Tennessee legislators were eager to grade schools on an A-F scale to better help parents choose the school best for their child. A year later, legislators are walking back this bright idea fearing the onslaught of unintended consequences.

According to Mary Batiwalla, TNDOE director of accountability, at a March meeting in Washington D.C.:

“The lowest-achieving school could receive an ‘A’ under our [proposed] system — very low-achieving, but showing what we consider to be remarkable and life-changing growth,” she said. “It’s a tough conversation to have with folks because there is this very accepted notion that ‘If you say that school that is very low-performing is an A school, you are lying to parents.’ ”

I’m not sure to whom Batiwalla is referring when mentioning “tough conversation to have with folks”, but let me offer a bit of advice: please don’t make high stakes accountability decisions based on short-sighted assumptions. Surely, we are not in the business of deciding a school’s health based on the perceived difficulty of the conversation. Simply, is it right by kids?

Batiwalla went on to say, “Tennessee has decided we no longer want to reward simply having high absolute achievement. If you have students who come in at a certain level, the expectation is that you grow those students.”

Batiwalla is actually on the right track. The academic growth does matter. And as a parent, I think parents will get that. And the messaging isn’t really that hard, is it? I mean if you’ve got a 5th grader reading at a second grade level, and by the end of the year he’s reading at a 4th grade level that should be rewarded. That’s real growth, even if he isn’t quite at a 5th grade level, it doesn’t mean he’s not “achieving” or “reaching proficiency.”

Here’s hoping the final ESSA plan will address this issue. I’ll be watching…


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