By Tribune News Service - TNS

By Meghan Mangrum, Chattanooga Times Free Press (TNS)

As Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee urged school districts across the state to close for at least the rest of the month Monday, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn asked the federal government for a waiver to potentially suspend statewide assessments this year.

Schwinn has the authority to request such waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, but also has to ask the Legislature to change state law in order to suspend state testing – that authority lies solely with it.

“Assessment and accountability is a integral part of the Tennessee education system that enables us to learn where students are excelling and how best to meet the needs of all students,” Schwinn said in a letter to legislators Monday. “The Department is actively working with Governor Bill Lee and his team to develop a series of waiver options for immediate consideration by the legislature.”

Annual standardized testing is required for Tennessee students in grade 3-8 and once they enter high school. The state uses the results to help determine how well students are learning and to hold teachers, schools and districts accountable.

The current testing window opens on April 13, with some leeway for districts, but many educators have been calling for the state to shutter schools and suspend testing since districts started closing their doors last week over concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

The Tennessee Education Association called on Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to cancel testing in a statement Monday.

“The Tennessee Education Association is calling on the Lee administration and the Tennessee General Assembly to cancel all TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system for this school year. There will be a significant loss of classroom time for students, and the continuity of instruction critical to building knowledge will be disrupted. Continuing with state high-stakes testing, or the time-consuming portfolio system used in kindergarten and related arts, will only be setting our students and teachers up to fail,” the statement read. “The Tennessee Department of Education and our state legislature must prioritize the health and well-being of students, educators and families.”

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, asked Lee to allow the education department to request a one-year waiver to postpone statewide testing as well as protect participation rates or absenteeism metrics from being factored into any school’s academic achievement indicators as required by federal law under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“We cannot be certain that our state will not require additional school closings during the entire testing window. However, Tennessee can’t administer assessments that are reliable and valid during this academic year. The impact caused by weather and COVID-19 will undeniably affect our accountability system due to school closures or student absences. Districts and educators should also be held harmless,” Cepicky said.

House Education Chairman Mark White said Monday that the committee will focus on using a caption bill to address questions about school testing, accountability, and graduation requirements amid Gov. Lee’s statewide closure. The committee also will look to waive missed deadlines for Tennessee Promise applications.