Tennessee’s plan to start grading its schools this year has taken a big detour.

Days of online testing problems this spring forced officials to toss out a new A-F grading system, under development for more than a year as part of Tennessee’s sweeping plan to usher in a new era of school quality.

Now the state Education Department has come up with a different approach to help parents and communities understand how their schools performed in 2017-18.

The state will rate each school on a scale of 0-4 on six different performance indicators. And in a major concession to local district leaders, schools won’t receive a single overall grade or rating as initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the change complies with a new state law ordering that this year’s TNReady scores “shall not be used to assign a letter grade to a school” — a nod to concerns that the test results may be unreliable. She believes it also complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, the 2015 federal law that requires every state to adopt a rating system that distinguishes each of its schools in a meaningful way.   

McQueen’s approach is drawing mostly praise from education leaders and groups, even as some wonder whether a numeric system will provide the simplicity and clarity of one that grades schools on an A-F scale.

“I give the department credit for going much further than I thought they could or would based on the TNReady law. They were very creative and ambitious,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, which seeks to improve education quality for students of color.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says the numeric system “is not ideal, but it does allow for some accountability and fulfills our requirement” under ESSA.

Federal officials are expected to approve the numeric rating concept and a few other revisions on Tennessee’s updated ESSA plan shared last month with the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen recently told the task force advising her on testing matters that the numeric system will still provide useful information about how schools are doing in areas such as chronic absenteeism; out-of-school suspensions; student readiness for college, career and the military; and a variety of student achievement and growth data. The indicators are meant to give families a fuller picture of school performance than test scores alone.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is greeted by students and staff at Springdale Memphis Magnet Elementary School during a 2015 svisit.

The commissioner also believes the ratings will follow the intent of the emergency TNReady laws, which shield schools from any “adverse action” from this year’s scores.

The ratings will be accessible online by December. For now, state officials are calling the new platform a “dashboard,” and school superintendents got an early peek last week at its design.

The dashboard will be separate from Tennessee’s existing State Report Card, another online tool showing annual data such as demographics, per-pupil funding, and student achievement by school and district. (Editor’s note: State officials have since decided to combine the dashboard and the State Report Card.)

“The current report card has dozens of data points, but we know it may not be a user-friendly tool for every parent to understand how a school is doing” said state spokeswoman Sara Gast.

“The dashboard will condense the number of data points to highlight what we think are some of the key indicators of success, and provide some context about what those scores mean,” she said.

But whether using the 0-4 system will be as easy to understand as A-F grades is a concern.

State lawmakers passed a 2016 law requiring an A-F system for schools beginning this year, and the Education Department adopted that approach as part of Tennessee’s ESSA plan. The idea was to provide parents with an easy-to-use tool to understand how their child’s school is performing. After all, that’s what their children get on their report cards.

For several years, the plan to give each school an overall grade — in addition to grades for each performance indicator — has been a point of contention for local education leaders. The state superintendents organization has fought the idea at every turn and was pushing legislation this year to roll it back before this year’s online TNReady problems made the issue moot.

“We’ve never opposed getting grades for individual areas,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “But many superintendents and school boards felt very passionately that giving schools a single letter grade was not the right approach to give parents the best and most accurate information.”

"I believe (the changes) get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish."Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville

Gresham, who sponsored the A-F bill that became state law, is equally passionate about the importance of providing parents with one summative grade for their school. She’s also concerned that the numeric system won’t pack the same punch as letter grades.

“I believe that both choices get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish,” Gresham told Chalkbeat. “The parents and our communities are our audience, not school administrators.”

Pupo-Walker would rather have overall grades too. But, for now, she’s mostly concerned about whether the dashboard will help parents and communities have robust conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools.

“The onus is on the state to present the information in a way that parents and schools and community members can understand it,” she said, “and then for the information to be actionable.”

In partnership with the state, the coalition is sponsoring five regional meetings beginning June 26 in Nashville to discuss updates to Tennessee’s ESSA plan, including the new rating system. You can find the details here.