Bill Lee

Bill Lee

Gov. Bill Lee on Friday announced that teachers, districts and schools would not be held accountable for the results of high-stakes student testing.

Students will still take their year-end tests, but teachers will not be evaluated as a result. Officials said that is because they want to know where students are academically. However, federal education funding also requires the use of tests and requires accountability unless they grant a waiver.

In response, J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, said, “We are very pleased to see Governor Lee’s position that alleviates any burdens associated with educator evaluations and school accountability in 2020-2021. In regards to testing, we are unsure of the value they bring to this academic year.  Every dollar spent on high-stakes testing is a dollar taken away from the classroom. This year it may be better for schools to focus on remediation, growth, and the safety of students. However, we are extremely grateful to the Governor for taking this position.”

Lee and his administration spoke about the education decision, as well as the spread of the coronavirus in rural communities and the rise in hospitalizations, during a press conference Friday. A summary of that press conference follows.

Lee:

Maria and I continue to feel fine today. We are both working from home and are showing no symptoms. We will be tested again in the next few days.

The reason for the call: Wednesday we wanted to discuss something important but it got sidetracked by my situation. Our concerns about the learning loss and our strategy moving forward.

This has been a very unusual school year. It’s important to understand where our kids are academically, especially after many had extra time away from class. We cannot fill in the gaps without understanding where they are. Testing and accountability have to look different. We need assessments but it needs to be different.

Teachers are teaching in unorthodox ways. It is hard on kids and especially teachers.

We, and the General Assembly, will alleviate the burdens with teacher evaluations. Those are core to progress as we measure growth and proficiency. But teachers need a clear runway to focus on delivering solutions to students who need to grow academically. That means evaluations and accountability should be paused this year. I am speaking with legislative leaders and I think we will find a workable solution.

Penny Schwinn, Education Commissioner:

We have had many districts on fall break and more to do so. We saw a dip in positive cases on the dashboard: 255 new students. October is about halfway through the fall semester and time for testing, especially high school.

Our team is working with superintendents to help students’ learning grow. Testing and accountability have been important in that. I agree with the governor. This unprecedented time has had an impact. I am ready to work with the Legislature on adjusting accountability for districts, schools and teachers.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health Commissioner:

Following up on my Wednesday comments on hospitalizations: Cases are going up, positivity rates too. It is moderate in the increase. But hospitalizations have been disproportionally large vs. cases and positivity rate: over 30 percent increase since Oct. 1.

We are seeing much more penetration in rural communities. Those have larger numbers of older and sicker and comorbid people. All areas of the state saw large increases in hospitalizations.

The average age for hospital is 70; length of stay is nine days.

It is not just a quick in and out. These are extensive stays and require much medicine and treatment and recovery. After the hospital you still have a long recovery.

Our hospitals are in a much better place than during the beginning and even in July when the peak hospitalization hit. The industry tells us they are in a better position from a treatment standpoint and at managing capacity and the surge in their facilities. We learned one-size-fits-all approach does not work well. We do not intend to issue a mandate for hospitals statewide but are helping them with their surge.

In April to July, we talked about hospital capacity. It is not about beds: it is about people. I thank all the hospital workers who are working hard. If you don’t have people, you can’t have beds. A month ago, we created a program for hospital staffing grants: $51 million for those with lots of covid patients. With this, we can help with staffing, such as overtime or contracting with agency staff. The point is getting staff into hospitals to open beds.

Also, we opened eight covid-specific nursing homes, geographically spread around the state. Patients who need a lower level of care and can be transferred. Or when a nursing home has a positive case, these are high quality centers that can take patients. Sometimes you are in a convalescent phase before leaving the hospital, and these centers can help.

Younger people under 70: We know our older family and friends are getting the virus from younger people.

Questions:

Q: By not canceling testing outright, what is the concern whether districts and students will take testing seriously and will you get good results?

Schwinn: Our districts are strong leaders and teachers are. They will say to try their best. We want to know where our kids are at. The leadership will make a difference. Accountability is not appropriate this year.

Q: With the comments on younger people spreading the virus to older people, are you confident the kids should be in school?

Lee: In-person learning will help us get the tests accurately. We had success about 10 weeks into school: half of one percent of schools closed after being open.

Q: How will the lack of accountability affect charter school performance and other decisions?

Lee: There are many decisions to be made over the next several months. The partnership with the Assembly. Most decisions will be made by them. This year is different from other years.

Q: With increases in cases and deaths, including rural, has the lifting of business restrictions made people feel safer than they are and easing off of precautions they were taking?

Lee: As cases rise, they then decline. It is hard to know the cause for cases. We know it is very serious. We know we cannot continue to keep businesses closed forever. We know we can protect lives at the same time. Nationwide, states with significant restrictions have significant case rise. So, the cause is hard to pinpoint. We want to make people aware they have personal responsibility: masks, hand washing, social distancing.

Q: If cases get worse, would you consider putting some restrictions back?

Lee: I said from the start, there is nothing off the table. There is growing evidence: WHO said shutting down the economy is not beneficial. What is: things we know work in mitigating the spread by human contact: social distancing, masks, washing hands. Dr. Birx said the other day on a call, people going out in public is safe for the most part, but there is belief that is not where spread happens: homes, family gatherings, small gatherings, which were not set up for protection like public places.

Q: With the temporary suspending of accountability, will it affect funding for the coming year?

Lee: We have not made connections between this and funding. Working with the Assembly, they will make sure districts are not penalized by enrollment changes, etc.

Schwinn: There is not a connection. Our focus is on teachers teaching. Assembly will have to look at the BEP.

Q: With covid being in rural areas, a Tipton County teacher expressed concern her district is no longer requiring masks. She and a doctor called for a statewide mask mandate. Would you consider that or enforcing school mask use?

Lee: We spoke about that a lot. Our approach has been supported by the White House and Dr. Birx. Local decision-making is most effective.

Q: What changed on accountability?

Lee: Nothing, but for seeing a significant learning loss from the time off. We have federal obligations to test, and there is a lot of money attached. We need all the funding we can get and not risk federal funding.

Q: I assume federal DOE will have to give leniency?

Schwinn: They sent a letter to all states saying there would not be waivers for assessments. They indicated there would be flexibility on accountability and teacher evaluations. We will continue to work with them on that.

Q: One reason to give tests, there is money to be lost?

Schwinn: We want to know how students are doing this year. Certainly, there are significant funds attached.

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