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School systems across Tennessee push for moratorium on standardized testing
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School systems across Tennessee push for moratorium on standardized testing

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Bristol Tennessee City Schools recently became part of a growing movement of school systems across the state calling for the suspension of standardized tests in Tennessee this year, and Sullivan County may soon join the effort.

It may be an uphill climb, though. The change would require a federal waiver and changes to state law by the state legislature.

At its Sept. 21 meeting, the Bristol Tennessee Board of Education approved a resolution calling for the Tennessee General Assembly to put a moratorium on end-of-year examinations and formative assessments throughout the year as well as a moratorium on the ways schools systems, teachers and students are held accountable by state standardized tests.

The resolution states that there are disparities in learning methods, available resources and internet access across the state that make a moratorium of some sort necessary. It also states that a moratorium would allow school systems to focus on regaining academic, social and emotional skills lost by students while schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This resolution brought BTCS in line with multiple schools systems across the state, including some of the largest that have also called for a moratorium due to challenges created amid the pandemic. BTCS has asked Bristol Tennessee City Council and the Sullivan County Commission to approve similar resolutions.

Bristol Tennessee City Council is set to vote on a resolution at its next meeting Oct. 6, and it seems poised to pass it. At the Sept. 22 City Council work session, Mayor Mahlon Luttrell and council members Lea Powers, Margaret Feierabend and Chad Keen spoke in favor of the resolution. Vice Mayor Vince Turner said he has no issues with the resolution.

“You would think the legislators are probably thinking this way themselves,” Luttrell said. “Or at least you would hope they would be with everything that’s been going on — all the distractions and interruptions — and hopefully they will be very sympathetic towards this.”

The Sullivan County Commission’s education committee discussed a similar resolution Thursday night and the commission will likely vote at its Oct. 15 meeting. County Mayor Richard Venable told the Bristol Herald Courier on Sept. 23 he had not seen the resolution yet, but he thought under the current circumstances it would be appropriate to look into the issue. He added he would be interested in hearing what a moratorium would accomplish for students and educators.

It’s possible Sullivan County Schools could also join the calls for a moratorium. Director of Schools David Cox said it will be discussed at the county Board of Education’s Oct. 8 meeting. He said it’s important to assess students to find out what they need, but those assessments can be made at the local level.

“If you’re asking me personally, I don’t think it’s fair to students given the circumstances,” Cox said.

He added that teachers should not be held accountable for how students perform if testing occurs this year. This is a shared concern for many school systems, including BTCS. Student performance on standardized tests affects teacher’s yearly evaluations and how the Tennessee Department of Education ranks schools. Students may also be held back a grade for poor performance.

However, this accountability can be waived. In spring 2018, issues with TNReady assessments, including a cyberattack, resulted in the Tennessee General Assembly passing a bill that ensured test scores wouldn’t be held against students, teachers or school systems. There’s also precedent for a complete moratorium on standardized testing. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill in mid-March that dropped end-of-course TNReady testing for the 2019-20 school year.

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For the 2020-21 school year, calls for a moratorium on testing started before the school year even started. Some of the earliest occurred in late June and July, when the superintendents of the school systems in Shelby and Williamson counties each sent letters to Gov. Bill Lee requesting a moratorium.

The mayors of Shelby County, Germantown, Collierville and Arlington also sent a joint letter to Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. County and city school boards also calling for a moratorium include: Metro Nashville; Rutherford County; Murfreesboro; Cumberland County; Roane County; Franklin County and Greeneville, among others.

However, it’s still unclear whether a moratorium will happen. In an emailed statement, Victoria Robinson, director of media for TDE, said the state would need both a federal waiver and the legislature must make changes to existing law to waive any requirements related to standardized assessments.

“As indicated in a letter sent to state agencies from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education does not intend on extending a waiver to waive state assessments this school year,” Robinson said.

Additionally, Gov. Lee has made it clear that he believes standardized testing is necessary to see where students are excelling or struggling. So far, he has denied requests for a moratorium. However, in Tennessee the General Assembly has ultimate authority over testing and evaluation mandates. Though it isn’t clear where the bulk of state senators and representatives stand on a moratorium, two local state legislators have different opinions on the issue.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he opposes cancelling standardized testing for a second year in a row, because it’s vital to get data that shows where students, teachers and schools are at.

“We are going to see anomalies because different schools are using different protocols,” Lundberg said “It’s important to know what’s working and what’s not. We need data.”

Lundberg pointed to preliminary data recently released by the governor’s office. The projections were developed in partnership with national researchers using historical, Tennessee-specific data. This preliminary data projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in third-grade reading and an estimated 65% decrease in proficiency in math for Tennessee students.

“Testing is more important now than at any other time,” Lundberg said.

However, he said he is willing to consider how tests are weighted in terms of district rankings and scorings statewide. He added that the point of standardized testing is not to punish to teachers or students, but to show where resources are needed.

Meanwhile state Rep. John Crawford, R-Kingsport, said school directors, teachers and other educators in Sullivan County have convinced him that there shouldn’t be standardized testing this year.

He said data already shows kids are behind and teacher’s time would be better spent helping kids catch up rather than preparing them for tests.

“We’ve had several different areas that the kids have already fell a couple months behind in, and if they end up testing on top of that, you know, that’s going to take another three weeks, and the teachers are gonna have to take time to teach for the test and to get the kids ready,” Crawford said. “I just think that’s just gonna push our children further behind.”

lgreiss@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2512 | Twitter: @Leif_Greiss

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