Tennessee’s Untapped Superpower: Making Kids Invisible

by Lane Wright, Editor at Education Post

When I was a kid, sometimes my friends and I would ask each other which superpower would we give ourselves if we could. Inevitably, the power to make yourself invisible was always hotly debated. (Why would you want that, you creep!)

Well today, Tennessee has a superpower—not to make itself invisible, but to make some of its students disappear. Actually, under the new federal law all states have this power. Some education advocates (and friends of mine) worry Tennessee is making plans to use this power, but I disagree. I think the state is making a calculated trade-off that is ultimately best for students.

Let me explain.

Who Counts, Who Doesn’t

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the current federal education law, states have to tell folks in Washington how they’re going to make sure schools are accountable for gettin’ some learnin’ into them thar brains.

There’s a special focus on kids who typically end up getting the short end of the stick when it comes to education, like poor kids, students with disabilities, children who are learning to speak English, and racial minorities.

States have to track each of those groups of students and have a plan of action for the schools that struggle most. But they can choose how big the group needs to be before they do that.

Why It’s Tricky

For example, if you’ve got a school where there are only five black students, publically reporting on the progress of that small group of students—and attaching consequences—can be problematic.

Let’s say 60 percent of that group (three of the five) are passing math. Next year one student slips and is no longer passing. Serious consequences could be triggered because the group dropped from 60 percent to 40 percent even though it was only one student. That wouldn’t be fair to the school. The other issue is you risk identifying (and embarrassing) individual students when you have so few in a group.

The law says you’ve got to pick a minimum number of students needed at a school before you start holding schools accountable for them. Pick a number too low, and you run into problems where you can’t really rely on the information (at least not to draw any conclusions about the school) and you might cause harm to individual students. Pick a number too high, and you can literally make entire groups of students invisible to everyone in the state. Nobody will be able to see how those kids are doing compared to everyone else.

Like I said, superpower.

Concerns With Tennessee’s Plan

Experts say anything higher than 30 risks overlooking too many students. Tennessee is right at 30—tied with Michigan as the highest in the country among the 17 states that have turned in their plans so far. Most range from 10 to 20 students.

While this is a concern for some education advocates in the state, the bigger concern for many is with Tennessee’s plan to combine black, Hispanic, and Native American students into one subgroup, instead of breaking them out separately.

That means if you wanted to track math scores among Native American students at XYZ School in Tennessee and step in if they’re consistently struggling, you’re out of luck. You can only expect the state to take action if all the students, on average, in the black/Hispanic/Native American group are falling behind.

Advocates rightfully argue that these different ethnic groups have unique challenges: The problem for one group may be different from the other. And the solutions may be different too.

Combining the three racial minority groups also makes it possible for two of the groups to do well while one falls way behind. But since they’re combined, the accountability report card will simply show that, on average, that group is doing okay.

Again, we see the real power to make students invisible.

Why Combining Racial Groups Makes Sense

Education Leaders in Tennessee argue that the current plan, holds schools accountable for 43,000 more black, Hispanic and Native American students, than if they were counted separately.

In other words, for schools with less than 30 students in one of those groups, the architects of Tennessee’s plan believe it’s better to count students in a combined group than to not count them at all.

Fortunately, parents can still see how individual groups of black, Hispanic, and Native American students groups are doing.

Tennessee plans to have schools report each group separately if there are at least 10 students in a group at a school. There’s just no guarantee the state will spring to action if one group is struggling. But with that transparency, parents and others who care about public education can still put pressure on the state when they see a problem.

Being able to make groups of students disappear is a serious power. It’s not imaginary, and it’s not a joke. But Tennessee is approaching this thoughtfully and responsibly. They’re balancing the need for an accountability system that is fair to schools, with one that looks out for the needs of students. And they’re transparent about the individual performance of black, Hispanic, and Native American students which allows everyone to see if there is a problem that needs addressing, regardless of what’s written in the law.

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