State officials have officially changed the way schools are held accountable this week by doing away with the legal strings that tied Tennessee to the federal No Child Left Behind program.
Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law provisions that allow the state to grade schools on a different rubric following the U.S. Department of Education’s call to allow Tennessee to opt out of what critics say is an outdated program.
“I want to be real clear, we are not lowering standards. We are just making certain that we’re measuring improvement and having appropriate standards that recognize when achievement is happening and rewarding that,” Haslam told reporters after signing HB2346 at Brick Church Middle School in Nashville Thursday.
Changes to the law include doing away with “adequate yearly progress,” a standard the NCLB program used to determine whether a school was considered passing or failing. Those standards would have labeled 80 percent of Tennessee schools as failing this year, officials say, despite having made academic gains.
“We were in a world last year where 800 some schools failed AYP,” said said Kevin Huffman, the state’s education commissioner. “And yet, hundreds of those schools had made significant progress during the very year where they moved from passing to failed status. So something was wrong with the picture.”
In its place, the law creates a new system aimed at measuring student growth in core subjects and reducing the achievement gap between student subgroups. The new law also gives more tools to the state Achievement School District to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools.
“The whole system benefits from having a realistic measure,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association. “There’s going to be nuances and adjustments without a doubt, but we’re going to raise standards, raise expectations.”
The U.S. Department of Education offered Tennessee an out from portions of the NCLB program in January after a long application process and a visit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan last year who said the state is an example other states should look up to.
Haslam also announced more than $37 million in federal grants to turn around poor performing schools, with $14.8 million going to Memphis City Schools and $12.4 million to Metro Nashville Schools. Hamilton County will see about $600,000 for planning and be eligible for further funds in the fall, according to state officials. Knoxville schools did not receive any of this grant money because it is not home to schools at the bottom of the pack.