By ZOË WATKINS
When school letter grades were released for each school system, some could argue it caused more confusion than celebration.
Questions emerged. Why did Eakin and Southside Elementary receive F’s, but East Side and Learning Way a C? Why was Cascade High the only school in Bedford County to receive an A? Community Middle received a D but Harris and Community Middle received B’s?
Sitting down with Superintendent of Schools Tammy Garrett, it was explained that the scores don’t necessarily reflect the school as a whole but rather achievement and growth measured through TN Ready testing done in April of 2023.
School letter grades, which was implemented by legislation passed in the fall of last year, are meant to allow families and communities an opportunity to see how well schools are serving their students.
Garrett, who served on the working group to advise the legislation, explained, “My understanding is the business community wanted a letter grade for schools to make it more transparent.”
However, where Garrett — and other superintendents and principals — had issues with state letter grades is the “new rubric” that was passed after testing had been completed in April 2023.
“Our problem was they came up with the calculations six months after the test. So you didn’t know the rules as you were playing the game,” said Garrett.
The state also measured the bottom 25% by looking at growth for “high need students.”
Garrett said some people may say this is a deficit model. “Whereas a lot of recent research has shown that what works better is an acceleration model, which we’ve had a lot of success with in our tutoring — the Tennessee ALL Corps tutoring, which is set up like an acceleration model,” she said
That is, you teach the kids the current grade level standards and work from there. But in a deficit model, you take them from where they are (e.g., if they’re on a 2nd grade level in 6th grade).
“So I have some fears this will create that deficit model again,” said Garrett, explaining that, even though it’s important to focus on the bottom percentile, it’s important also to balance the focus on the middle and upper percentile students, who are often neglected in those types of models.
Garrett added that a lot of people are theorizing that this legislation was a direct reflection of trying to get the school voucher legislation passed in Tennessee. That is, when the federal accountability system grades came out, some wanted the grades to be lower.
“I hope that’s not the case,” said Garrett. “I do think public dollars should stay with public schools.
“But if public dollars go to private schools, they should have the same accountability measures that we have.”
On the federal accountability system, BCS had two schools that got A’s, nine that got B’s, three that got C’s, and one that got a D. No Bedford County schools received F’s.
But one major difference between the federal and state grades is chronic absenteeism, which is counted in the federal grading. Absenteeism is an issue Bedford County Schools has focused on by hiring a truancy officer and emphasizing to students the importance of showing up to class.
“We’ve made great progress. We went from like 24% chronically absent in a prior year to 18% last year,” said Garrett. The change was reflected in the federal data.
But, even though chronic absenteeism isn’t factored in, getting students into school consistently does positively impact a school’s growth in other areas.
Garrett said the Bedford County Board of Education was aware some of the schools needed to be targeted, such as Southside Elementary. “We made some changes there in administration. I think that you will see they are doing some great things and they are improving,” she said.
Harris Middle, as well, was considered an Additional Targeted Support and Improvement (ATSI) school. “They had been low-performing for three years in a row. And they completely came off that list and scored a B [on the state’s letter grade],” said Garrett.
Though demographics are not factored into the school letter grades, Garrett added, “In Bedford County, there’s a lot of poverty. We have a significant number of non-English speaking students, which is a lot of resources.” The state requires for every 35 ESL students, an ESL instructor is required.
But that’s another issue affecting schools across the state: finding educators to fill open positions.
Garrett said one of the ways to improve schools in the county is having a low teacher to student ratio.
“Consistently providing high-quality instruction and effective educators is our number one goal always—to recruit, retain, and on-the-job training.”
This also impacts the learning environment as well. At Eakin, which made an F, there are over 600 students. “The building was not designed to hold over 600 students,” explained Garrett.
East Side, on the other hand, made a C grade, with similar demographics and only about 400 students.
“The number one indicator of how a school is going to perform is the teacher in front of them,” she said.
This is especially true in the tested subjects, such as math, English, and science.
High-quality principals, who have good management and instructional leadership, are also crucial, according to Garrett.
BCS did excel in some areas. For example, Cascade High received an A and a near-perfect 4.9/5.0.
“If you look at them from a few years ago, they were not performing well,” said Garrett. “They have made a turnaround. I am so proud of the work they are doing.”
Community Elementary, which made a B, has seen accomplishments. They had 10 Level-5 teachers last year. “Community, they made huge gains. If you look at their achievement they had 20% gains in some of their areas which is phenomenal.”
College and Career readiness was also measured in the school letter grades. State grants supporting Career and Technical Education (CTE) have helped in this area for BCS, according to Garrett.
For example, Community High offers nursing and cosmetology, Shelbyville Central offers welding and culinary arts, and Cascade High offers agriculture sciences to name a few.
“A lot of that equipment is very expensive. So a lot of the grant funding has allowed us to do that, like welding equipment and hospital equipment,” said Garrett. “That increases your score. And the more dual-enrollment courses you offer increase your score. The more industry-certifications that students can get increases your score.”
BCS’s switch to block scheduling and hiring more high school teachers have influenced the impact of CTE studies.
To view the full report on school letter grades, visit https://tdepublicschools.ondemand.sas.com/grades.