Tenn. Bill To Revamp Accountability System Debated
Tennessee lawmakers spent the waning hours of their 1997 session last week debating a bill that would revise the state's testing and accountability system for K-12 students.
Whatever the outcome, legislators were not likely to please everyone. The current system has its supporters, who have blasted portions of House and Senate proposals that would scrap a mandatory test for 2nd graders and delay the development of high school subject tests.
The compromise measure lawmakers were expected to vote on May 30 also fell short of recommendations made recently by Commissioner of Education Jane Walters for deeper changes in how Tennessee tests and monitors the progress of its students.
"It's probably half a loaf of everything she wanted to see," said Sidney Owen, the spokeswoman for the state education department.
While the final bill hadn't been hammered out as of press time, the broad parameters of the reform were in place. Legislators, though, still had to work out details between similar, but competing, House and Senate proposals.
Perhaps the most contentious proposal was included in a House bill, which passed late last month and would end the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program's 2nd grade test. Today, the 2nd through 8th grades are tested in language arts, math, social studies, and science.
The 2nd grade test is significant because it is the benchmark year for comparing improvement on subsequent tests in grades 3-8. Student, teacher, and school assessments are then linked to such improvement.
Too Much Pressure?
Ms. Walters argued that too much pressure was being placed on students as early as kindergarten to prepare for the first exam. And 2nd grade scores became artificially inflated, in part, because teachers read the questions to students, thereby disguising reading-related shortcomings, according to the commissioner.
"Second grade scores are not comparable to scores at subsequent grade levels," she told members of the House and Senate education committees at a joint hearing May 22.
Under the House bill, the first test would come in 3rd grade. A Senate education committee bill passed May 29 would end the 2nd grade test, but require the education department to develop new 1st and 2nd grade assessments.
Not everyone agrees that the 2nd grade test should be scrapped.
"[Ms. Walters] is attempting to force her own agenda here. There's no research to show that 2nd graders aren't ready for tests," said Nelson Griswold, the vice president for policy at the Family Institute in Nashville.
The nonpartisan public-policy group filed a lawsuit last week claiming that Ms. Walters had failed to enforce a provision of the 1992 Education Accountability Act calling for high school end-of-course subject tests in 14 areas by 1999. Four math tests are now in place.
Arguing that meeting the letter of the original law would require an immediate $10 million expenditure to produce at least 47 tests, Ms. Walters asked the legislature to delay development of the tests until 2000.
The House and Senate bills would back her proposal.
Finally, in both the House and Senate versions, local school improvement plans would be linked to the state's accountability system. Schools that failed to make improvements detailed in their plans could be hit with sanctions by the state.
In other House and Senate provisions, comprehensive writing assessments would be mandated in 4th, 7th, and 11th grades, and low-performing schools would get an extra year's notice before being placed on probation.
But several items were missing from Ms. Walters' accountability-reform wish list.
For example, she had asked the legislature to require tests in math and reading annually in the 3rd through 8th grades. She also wanted to align science, social studies, and language arts tests with curriculum, with assessments in those areas in grades 5 and 8.
Also under her plan, the end-of-course subject exams would have been replaced with a comprehensive 10th grade test that would have high stakes for graduation.
"We would get better results this way than with a scatter-gun approach with the end-of-course tests," Ms. Owen said.
Despite the uproar over Ms. Walters' proposals, some observers are downplaying the changes.
George Nerren, the deputy director of the Tennessee School Boards Association, said, "To me, this is what I consider to be more of a fine-tuning."