Did They Even Read This?

It’s not clear that the Department of Education previewed or even actually read the words in a document intended to dissuade parents from opting their children out of state standardized tests.

While activists in Tennessee and around the country are encouraging the Biden Administration to grant testing waivers, parents are not waiting and are taking matters into their own hands.

In fact, when one parent recently indicated to a school principal that their child would be “opting out” of state testing in 2021, they were provided with a one page document from the Tennessee Department of Education explaining that opting-out is not an option.

Here’s that letter:

Opting Out of Annual Assessments 

October 2020 Updated 10/19/2020 

What is the Purpose of Annual Assessments? 

Annual assessments are critical to ensure that all students are making strong academic progress. In Tennessee, one measure of  student, school, and district academics is through the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), which are tests  aligned with our state’s academic standards, outlining what students are expected to know, guiding educators as they design their  lessons and curriculum. As Tennessee’s teachers work to equip all students with the knowledge and skills they need, we have to  ensure that we can identify any major gaps in students’ learning and find variations in growth among different schools – both so we  can strengthen support in places that need it and learn from educators and students who are excelling. 

Results from TCAP tests give both teachers and parents a unique feedback loop and big-picture perspective to better understand  how students are progressing and how to support their academic development. This yearly academic check-up is the best way to see  how all students in Tennessee are doing, and it is one key measure through which we learn if are meeting our responsibility to  prepare all students for college and the workforce. Because of the importance of annual assessment, we believe it is crucial for all  students to take all TCAP tests each year.  

May parents opt their students out of testing? 

State and federal law requires student participation in state assessments. These statutes specifically reference the expectation that  all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments. Therefore, school districts are not authorized  to adopt policies allowing these actions.  

No, state and federal law requires student participation in state assessments. In fact, these statutes specifically reference the  expectation that all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments. Given both the importance  and legal obligation, parents may not refuse or opt a child out of participating in state assessments. Therefore, school districts are  not authorized to adopt policies allowing these actions.  

With the exception of students impacted by COVID-19 as described below, school districts must address student absences on testing  days in the same manner as they would address a student’s failure to participate in any other mandatory activity at school (e.g. final  exams) by applying the district’s or school’s attendance policies.  

What considerations may be made for students impacted by COVID-19? 

Students Impacted Medically by COVID-19 

A student who tests positive for COVID-19 and is unable to return to school to test may be exempt from testing following  appropriate medical exemption documentation.  

Supporting Students with Existing Health Conditions 

Students with health conditions, such as those who may be immunocompromised, may also qualify for a medical exemption, if the  school building testing coordinator or district testing coordinator is unable to accommodate the testing environment needed to  ensure student safety. Students with other diagnoses whose needs can be addressed with appropriate supports throughout the  school year should have a plan that includes the student’s needs during testing as well. Districts should follow accommodations  available to students as outlined in these plans, as long as they do not compromise test security or the validity of the assessment.  

Guidance for Classrooms and Schools Impacted by Quarantine 

In the case of a student, set of students, or school impacted by a quarantine due to COVID-19 in advance of testing, school districts  are strongly encouraged to schedule make-up testing opportunities that would be able to be administered at a date when students  could safely return to school. School districts typically schedule make-up opportunities shortly after their previously communicated  test dates but this Fall may choose to offer additional make-up testing opportunities for students later if they can plan with enough  advance notice to ensure test availability. 

Key Phrase

Here’s the key phrase (repeated twice in the letter):

These statutes specifically reference the expectation that  all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments.

Note that no sections of Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) or United States Code (USC) are referenced here. Why? Because the codes that require students to take the tests do not exist. There are Tennessee regulations preventing districts from adopting policies regarding opting-out. Violation of such policies is subject to a penalty determined by the Commissioner of Education.

But, the laws on the books regarding students merely “reference the expectation” that students will complete the assessments.

Umm? What?

Did anyone at DOE read this “guidance” before sending it out? Does the staff there assume that Tennessee parents can’t actually read?

Your child “must” take the test because districts aren’t allowed to adopt policies allowing opt-out and because someone who wrote some statutes “expects” that children will complete assessments?

No. Just no.

That’s not how this works.

In fact, here’s something I wrote back in 2016 that is directly relevant now:

There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

See, no big deal. Except, well, Penny Schwinn wants to make it a big deal. Just like the previous Commissioner of Education wanted to make it a big deal.

Dear parents: Don’t be bullied by letters riddled with redundancy from the Department of Education. Instead, push back on Penny’s petulance.

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Legislative Committee Approves Moore Appointment to Textbook Commission

After a 45-minute hearing, the House Education Instruction Committee approved the appointment of Laurie Cardoza-Moore to the state Textbook Commission on a voice vote. The opposition voices came exclusively from committee Democrats. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers attempted to steer the conversation about Moore away from comments she’s made publicly regarding slavery and the Islamic religion.

As a result of the committee vote, Moore is one step closer to legislatively-endorsed service on the state body that reviews and helps select textbooks for distribution in our state’s schools.

Here’s more on Moore:

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Laurie’s Last Stand?

Laurie Cardoza-Moore, an anti-Muslim activist and participant in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol will be considered for an appointment on the state Textbook Commission at a hearing in the House Education Instruction Committee on Wednesday, March 24th, at 11:00 AM.

Moore was appointed to the Textbook Commission by House Speaker Cameron Sexton. While most such appointments are approved with little debate or discussion, Moore is expected to generate at least some opposition.

In fact, Moore’s anxiety over losing out on the opportunity to shape Tennessee’s textbook choices was reflected in a column she wrote for the Tennessean:

I pray for a day, when parents in the Volunteer State can send their children to school with the knowledge that they are receiving a wholesome, accurate and unbiased American education.

She’s also a fan of encouraging her followers to “take back” America’s schools, as demonstrated in this letter about Dominion voting machines.

Apparently, taking back the schools has become a great source of profit for Moore. Just look at 2017, when:

. . . she paid herself $130,000. Then, she paid her husband’s business $67,000. There was a business “office expense” for occupancy at just over $49,000. She runs PJTN from her home, so that means she’s paying her mortgage with the cash. That’s $200,000 in payments to Moore and her husband, and another 50,000 a year to cover their mortgage. Then, there’s another $26,000 paid to Moore as an “occupancy expense.” Oh, and there’s $41,000 on “meals and entertainment.” Finally, her two kids received a total of around $2000 from the organization for “contract labor” that year.

Tune-in Wednesday to the hearing at the Cordell Hull building which could be Moore’s last stand in her quest for a position of influence and authority over what is taught in Tennessee’s schools.

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An Unattainable Burden

The current state of Tennessee’s school funding formula (the BEP) places an “unattainable burden” on local school districts, according to Katie Cour of the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF).

The Foundation released a policy brief highlighting the shortcomings of the BEP this week.

Here’s more from the Tennessean:

The Nashville Public Education Foundation is renewing the long-time argument of many school districts, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, that the state’s Basic Education Program, or the BEP funding formula, is not adequate.

“Bottom line, the BEP consistently underestimates what it takes to run schools and places an unattainable burden on local districts to pick up the difference,” said Katie Cour, president and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation, in a statement.

“Too often people feel relieved when they hear the state has ‘fully funded the BEP,’ but this statement is essentially meaningless. Tennessee is grossly underfunding schools that serve one million students each year – more than 82,000 just in Nashville,” she said.

Cour’s argument is supported by findings from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) which found that the state underfunds schools by $1.7 billion:

“Although the changes made in 1992 and since have resulted in substantial increases in funding to support the BEP, meeting local needs and the requirements imposed by the state and federal governments often requires more resources than the BEP funding formula alone provides. Consequently, state and local funding in fiscal year 2017-18 totaled $2.1 billion over and above what was required by the BEP formula, including a total of $1.7 billion in local revenue.”

Additionally, a study by the Education Law Center found that Tennessee schools are funded at $1 billion less than they should be based on not keeping up with inflation since 2008:

In fact, the Education Law Center has released a report noting that from 2008 to 2018, school funding in inflation-adjusted dollars in Tennessee actually decreased by $1,065 per pupil. To put it another way, had school spending kept up with inflation, our schools would see an additional $1 billion in state investment.

The push for more funds comes as the state experiences a record surplus in addition to funds coming in from the American Rescue Plan.

So far, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders have shown little interest in actually using this unique moment to make meaningful investments in the state’s schools.

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We Need a Bigger Pie

The League of Women Voters (LWV) is calling on Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to take bold action on school funding. The group notes that the state historically underfunds schools and suggests that now is the time to change that reality. In fact, the push from the LWV comes as the state is experiencing an unprecedented revenue surplus.

Here’s more from LWV from a media release:

Chronically underfunded school districts throughout the  state have been especially challenged during the pandemic. However, the inadequacies and  the gross underfunding predate this stressful year. Tennessee currently funds its public school  system at a level that consistently places it in the bottom five most poorly funded states in the  United States, per the National Education Association.

“This goes beyond how you slice the pie to provide varying amounts of funding to the diverse  counties of our state – the pie itself is simply not big enough,” said Debby Gould, president elect of LWVTN. “The League’s position on education is that the state’s coverage,  implementation, and funding of the Basic Education Program should be adequate to assure a  high standard of public education.” 

Under the current formulation, the BEP allows for a per-student budgeted amount  that is $3,655 lower than the nationwide average, and lower than most southeastern states.  Because the BEP formula underfunds our public schools, it puts a heavy burden on communities  to supply the local funds necessary to provide an acceptable standard of public education for  students. 

Each year, a BEP Review Committee analyzes the formula and its results for the preceding year,  making official recommendations to the state for improvement. The committee’s latest report  recommends increasing the BEP teacher salary component to match what districts actually  have to spend. It also recommends increasing the numbers of school nurses and counselors to  meet nationally-recognized standards and increasing the number of interventionists to fulfill  requirements of a state-mandated program designed to keep students from falling behind, or  catch them up more quickly when they do. At the very minimum, Governor Lee and the General  Assembly should incorporate all BEP Review Committee recommendations and provide  recurring funding for them. This action would be a significant step toward adequately funded  public schools for all Tennessee children.

MORE on the inadequacy of the current BEP:

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Another $200 Million

The Tennessee Department of Revenue has released February numbers and it seems our state has nearly $200 million more than was budgeted – in February alone. This continues a trend of the state’s revenue far-exceeding budgeted estimates.

Here’s more from the Department’s press release:

Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley today announced that Tennessee tax revenues exceeded budgeted estimates in February. February revenues totaled $1.13 billion, which is $112.7 million more than the state received in February 2020 and $190.9 million more than the budgeted estimate. The growth rate for February was 11.06 percent.

Despite the continued positive revenue news, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders appear committed to a status quo budget for schools.

As I noted over at The Education Report:

It’s clear the BEP is inadequate. The state’s own bipartisan commission that studies issues like school funding says the formula is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

The Education Law Center notes that our state’s school funding has yet to recover from the 2008 recession. Had we kept up with prior funding levels and inflation, we’d have an additional $1 billion invested in schools right now.

So, Tennessee has billions and billions of dollars to spend and a school funding system that ranks 46th in the country and has landed lawmakers in court. Why isn’t there some big push to make an investment in schools?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Gov. Lee and those in legislative leadership don’t actually believe in public schools.

At a minimum, lawmakers should use the significant surplus of cash to fill the $1.7 billion hole in the BEP identified by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs (TACIR). They can do this without raising anyone’s taxes and they can do it while still investing in other priorities AND contributing significantly to the state’s rainy day fund.

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Bill Lee vs. Tennessee Schools

Gov. Bill Lee apparently isn’t all that excited about the billions of dollars in money coming into Tennessee by way of the American Rescue Plan. Here’s a recent tweet from Lee expressing his dismay with the proposal that means money in the pockets of many Tennesseans and will send $2.6 billion to our state just for education.

I guess Lee feels like it is a punishment for a state like Tennessee, which ranks 46th in education funding, to receive $2.6 billion to help our schools. Will he stand at the state line and stop the money from coming into our severely underfunded schools?

Interestingly enough, pro-privatization group 50CAN published a report outlining how the funds from the American Rescue Plan will benefit public schools. They used Tennessee as an example case to demonstrate the flow of the added cash.

So, our state will see $2.6 billion. Most of that will flow directly to local districts. In this example, we see that Shelby County gets more than half a billion dollars. As the report notes, these funds are expected to be spent by 2023, but can fund programs that last up to 2028. That means there’s a fair amount of flexibility and they can both help establish new programs and make those programs sustainable, at least in the short term.

Never mind all these benefits, though. Gov. Lee has to take to Twitter to attack a plan that will directly benefit our state’s public schools.

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Cancel the Tests

In response to the Biden Administration’s insistence that students will take standardized tests this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of Members of Congress are urging Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to rethink that decision and cancel the tests. Now, the Network for Public Education is urging action to support these Members of Congress in their efforts.

Here’s more from the NPE email:

In December of 2019, candidate Joe Biden promised that if elected, he would stop standardized testing. His Department of Ed, however, said that we should have testing in the middle of the pandemic.

We pushed back and today, we have good news! Some members of Congress are asking the U.S. Department of Education to change its mind about testing! Read about it here. Let’s give them our support TODAY!

We need more members of Congress to get on board. We can’t give up.

1. Call Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office at: (202) 225-4965.

Here is a suggested script.

My name is (name). I am calling to request that Speaker Pelosi ask the President and Secretary Cardona to grant waivers from annual testing. Forcing schools to administer annual tests undermines the administration’s call to support our students’ social-emotional and mental health in this time of crisis. We need to put children, not data, first. Thank you.

2. Then call your Representative and Senators. You can find their numbers here and here.

Here is a suggested script.

“My name is (name), and I am a constituent of (name). I strongly oppose the Department of Ed’s recent letter that forces schools to administer annual tests this year. All of our schools’ efforts must be used to support our students’ social-emotional and mental health in this time of crisis.  I am requesting that (name) speak with the President and Secretary Cardona and ask them to grant waivers from the annual testing mandate. Thank you.”

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Missing the Mark

Superintendents in Shelby County are raising concerns about recently-passed legislation that would make retention the default option for a significant number of third grade students. One Superintendent even noted the effort “misses the mark” of its intent and instead of being helpful, will actually have a harmful effect on students.

The Daily Memphian has more:

“I have never seen anything that will hurt students as bad as what they are proposing,” Germantown Municipal School District Superintendent Jason Manuel told the suburb’s Board of Education in a recent meeting.

The response from Manuel comes as his district sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee and local lawmakers raising concerns about this issue and the insistence on in-person TNReady testing this year.

Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that TNReady is NOT a literacy test and using it for this purpose is ill-advised.

“The legislation is attempting to address third graders who can’t read at grade level, but the TCAP test doesn’t test to see if students can read at grade level,” Lakeland Superintendent Ted Horrell said.

Unsurprisingly, the leadership over at SCORE suggests this idea is a really good one – even though actual educators stand in strong opposition to it. Here’s SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri tweeting about how great this really bad idea is:

It’s almost as if Mansouri gets paid to be a cheerleader for the bad ideas of GOP governors instead of actually advancing sound education policy.

Here’s more on the folly of third grade retention:

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

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Tylor Talks Teaching

Nashville school board member Abigail Tylor talks about the crisis facing public education when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers in a recent Twitter thread.

Here are her thoughts:

These are all extremely important points. When we apply them specifically to TN, here’s what we can learn (a thread):

1. When you take into account changes in benefits and cost of living increases, teachers in TN make LESS now than they made 10 years ago. 1/

2. TN ranks 36th in the nation for teacher pay & it’s not due to a lower cost of living. TN teachers make 21.4% less than non-teacher college grads in TN. In fact, there’s no state in the entire US where teacher pay is equal to non-teacher college grad pay. 2/

3. Teachers in TN have been promised substantial raises by our last two governors, only to have both walk it back. When our state budget looks tight, teachers are first on the chopping block. If TN valued teachers, they would prioritize them. 3/

4. Although Gov Lee finally followed through on a teacher raise, it amounts to .10 on the dollar. TN has $3.1 billion in our reserves. $2 billion of that could easily be used to increase teacher pay w/out raising taxes 1cent. He’s choosing not to pay our teachers living wages. 4/

5. Fewer college students are choosing to major in education. Research shows that teachers who enter the profession w/out adequate preparation are more likely to quit. When we rely on programs that skip student teaching & necessary coursework, turnover rate is 2 to 3x higher. 5/

6. In TN, 47.51% of inexperienced teachers are in high-minority schools compared to 8.05% in low minority. 11.97% of uncertified teachers are in TN’s high-minority schools compared to .57% in low-minority. Guess which schools are most negatively impacted by high turn overs? 6/6

Originally tweeted by Abigail Tylor (@AbigailTylor) on March 1, 2021.

Tylor is right, of course. Tennessee teachers suffer from a significant wage gap.

Getting to Nashville specifically, teachers in the state’s largest city are severely underpaid.

In 2017, I wrote:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary?

In Nashville, and in Tennessee as a whole, there’s simply not a consistent commitment to investing in teachers. In fact, Gov. Lee’s attempts this year – when the state has a huge surplus – have been underwhelming to put it charitably.

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