By ZOË WATKINS
The Tennessee Department of Education hosted a public engagement town hall for the South Central region at Shelbyville Central high School last Thursday night to discuss School Letter Grades.
The law was established in 2016 and required TDOE to develop a school letter grading system beginning in 2017-18 to provide parents and families with information that shows how public schools are performing. (It was delayed until now to due online testing challenges and
Each school is assigned a letter grade, A through F, based on measurements like academics and growth (which are required by the law to be included) as well as English proficiency, growth, graduation and attendance rates.
This law will be implemented for the very first time this fall when the letter grades are expected to come out around November.
“What the law does is it calls for our agency to create a rating system for schools,” explained TDOE Chief of Staff Chelsea Crawford. “As we embark on implementation of this law for the very first time, we want to make sure we are developing a system that will provide really meaningful information to parents and families and the public all across the state. We also want to make sure this rating system measures the impact of a school in as fair a way as possible.”
But, as seen through recent town halls, many concerns and challenges have been brought up by school officials over how changes in the formula for these letter grade requirements will affect teachers and students.
To sum up the attitude at last Thursday’s town hall, Bedford County Commissioner, and former school board member, John Boutwell said, “It would probably be good if the legislature would have these town halls before they pass the legislation,” in which the audience applauded.
County leader comments
School Board Chairman Michael Cook asked the question, “We have a teacher shortage within the entire United States…How are we going to help that situation by putting a big F in front of the school?”
In a similar vein, Bedford County Schools Superintendent Tammy Garrett commented, “We really don’t want to change what we currently have. We feel like we’ve spent two and half years working on this and we feel like the game is already completed and you changed the rules in the end. We really worked with principals to study this accountability model. We have a good handle on it. We have had great growth this year…
“We are not interested in lowering the percentage — and that’s what we’ve heard — that we are going to lower the percentage of growth and increase the percentage of achievement. As an educator I think that is detrimental to areas like ours,” she said, citing Bedford County has areas of high poverty, English language learners, and chronic absenteeism.
“Teachers are over-achievers. They want an A. They will not walk in everyday to a school that they know there is no way physically possible, with the formula and with the demographics that they have, that they can get an A. It’s going to hurt teacher retention,” Garrett explained.
“I’m a proud representative of Harris Middle School,” said Brian Waggoner, 6th Grade Assistant Principal. “Excitedly I can say we were a Level 5 school…Analyzing our school at Harris Middle, it was highly evident the students exceedingly achieved the year’s growth. And on the flip side, if you look at our achievement scores, our scores didn’t look the greatest. In 8th grade, 14.4% were proficient. So if achievement scores counted more than growth scores, then we probably would have been a Level 1 school…So I think it should it be based upon the individual school’s needs.”
Glenn Forsee, who has been on the Bedford County Board of Education for close to 20 years, commented, “I know there is a lot of things going into making this equation work. We don’t need a calculus equation; we need something that we can understand that’s knowable, doable, and consistent…
“And flexibility on the local level. What works in Shelby County does not necessarily work in Shelbyville, Tennessee.”
Commissioner Boutwell also added, “There needs to be some consideration given to the inputs — inputs being do we have adequate facilities for the system, are kids in portables, and are schools buildings in good shape, does that impair learning? The next thing might be the actual funding for the school system that would enable the system to have the right teacher-student ratio.”
Outside county leaders
Catherine Stephens, superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, also attended the town hall and commented, “It seems a bit concerning to be seeking input to change the school letter grading system now, particularly as the 2023 assessment has been completed and all have been functioning under the knowledge of the current school letter grade system. Maybe a new system letter grades should be put in place following the 2024 results.”
Bill Heath, Superintendent of Lincoln County, said, “I’ve seen a lot of good intentions go to legislative plaza and come out as bad bills, and I really think this is one…
“We went through a process a few years ago where a lot of folks — I know superintendents — put a lot of time and effort into developing the current formula. So it’s somewhat disrespectful to those people to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to change that formula before we ever implement it,’ because it gives the appearance that someone has looked at the formula and looked at the schools and said, ‘We don’t have the right winners and the right losers.’”
Woody Dillehay, principal at East Middle School in Tullahoma, said, “In the school it’s disheartening to the teachers, administrators, district leaders, that are out there working their tails off only to get an arbitrary letter popped up beside your school that no one can really explain how it got there or the methodology, mathematically, of how we got it…I would love to see our state create a system that didn’t create winners or losers.”
TDOE’s next step is to create “working groups,” which will consist of teachers, legislators, parents, and other educators, to calculate these letter grades while taking into account feedback from the town halls.
“We want this to be something that is very transparent,” said Crawford. “Bottom-line, we really want to make sure the system is meaningful and conveys information to parents and the public in as a clear and understandable way as possible. But we also want to make sure that it measures schools, which can be wonderfully unique and different from each other, in as a fair a way as possible.”
Want to join the conversation? Visit https://www.tn.gov/education/schoollettergrades for more information and recordings of previous town halls.