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Tennessee lawmakers acted quickly on Wednesday to move forward a plan to cancel statewide TNReady exams after districts statewide closed schools at the urging of Gov. Bill Lee to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Lawmakers in the Senate and House voted the proposal out of committees held throughout the day to ready it for consideration in front of the full chambers.
The bill would ensure schools, teachers and students can’t be penalized for not taking the test.
The proposal, introduced through an amendment on Tuesday, is sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and was put together by Gov. Bill Lee’s administration.
The plan also would allow the state’s education commissioner to waive the requirement of how many days students are in classrooms. Many districts have canceled classes until at least April.
Johnson said it’s likely that some schools won’t resume this year, and even if they did, there’s no possible way for districts to meet the state’s requirement for minimum days of classroom instruction.
“We’re basically just throwing out the rulebook for this school year …,” Johnson said. “We’re just basically wiping the slate clean for this year. Students won’t be penalized, teachers won’t be penalized and schools (and districts) won’t be penalized.”
The consideration of the proposal is moving forward on an expedited timeline since the Tennessee General Assembly is expected to recess after this weekend due to the spread of COVID-19.
The Senate quickly moved the proposal toward the floor after a morning vote in an education committee. Its House companion moved through committees throughout the day.
The bill comes after Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said it is up to lawmakers to cancel the statewide exam after Lee’s call to close schools to promote social distancing and slow the spread of the virus. Several districts statewide also needed to close in recent weeks due to tornadoes that devastated parts of Middle Tennessee.
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Although Schwinn said the decision is up to lawmakers, her department on Monday asked for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would remove certain accountability requirements under federal law. The submission of the waiver readies the state if lawmakers decide to act on the TNReady cancellation proposal.
”We understand the significant life disruption to families across the state caused by severe weather and the coronavirus pandemic, and believe the priority must be to enact response measures to protect the health and safety of all Tennesseans,” Schwinn said.
“These are challenging times for all of us. I appreciate the opportunity to work with the Governor’s Office and legislative leaders to craft this amendment so that no student, educator or school will be adversely affected due to the loss of instructional time. We must continue to put children first.”
‘Teachers are worried’
Lawmakers called the cancellation of the test necessary after the tumultuous spring.
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Johnson said district closures could vary throughout the state, with some possibly returning later this year. “Regardless, we just needed to send the message because teachers are worried. Parents are worried.”
Lamberth said lawmakers and the Lee administration worked on the legislation for the last several days. He said the move is very similar to a provision lawmakers approved in 2018 due to issues with TNReady.
“Republicans and Democrats alike have worked very hard on this bill to make sure public education continues moving forward,” he said. “This is a bizarre world that we live in right now. To expect children and teachers to be able to test in a normal environment would really be unheard of.”
Proposal strikes accountability rules
House Bill 2818 would effectively strike TNReady testing requirements during spring 2020 and lays out how the state will act to ensure students and teachers aren’t harmed from school closures.
Throughout Wednesday, lawmakers from the House and Senate met to agree on light amendments but didn’t substantially change the bill.
The bill doesn’t prohibit districts from taking the test but says it can’t be used on any accountability or evaluation measures unless it benefits a teacher, student or district. The TNReady testing window this year is from April 13 to May 8.
Under the bill, districts with teachers filling out accountability evaluations aren’t required by the state to turn in any work.
The bill also gives Schwinn the power to provide waivers to districts for not meeting the statewide requirement of 180 instructional classroom days. The bill says districts won’t be financially punished due to the inability to operate.
And it directs the Tennessee State Board of Education to revise high school graduation requirements for the 2019-2020 school year to ensure high school seniors who were affected by closures do not fail to receive a diploma.
The bill also cancels any other required state tests for graduation or accountability and allows state agencies to plan what to do for students enrolled in dual credit or dual enrollment courses.
The bill also allows for flexibility for any issues that might occur due to COVID-19 related issues, such as canceled teacher training that would ensure they are current on state licensure requirements.
Joel Ebert contributed.
Reach Jason Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.