The recent spate of waivers from the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, granted by the Obama administration, came with a proviso that the state concerned enact its own alternate system. NCLB gave each school a pass-fail mark based on the percentage of students hitting targets. The Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program which starts next month will instead assess schools on whether their students making a 3% âlearning gain' each year. In addition schools are expected to make 6% gains closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
The lowest 5% of schools will be classified as âhigh priority' and subject to state intervention. The 10% of schools with the most trouble narrowing achievement gaps will also garner state attention. The top 10% of schools will receive financial rewards.
"Schools have an equal chance to end up on the focus list and the reward list," said Erin O'Hara, the Tennessee Department of Education's assistant commissioner for data and communications. O'Hara added: "This helps give parents a more full picture of the different schools."
Principals in low performing schools are delighted by the new system and the change in emphasis from high attainment to mere improvement. Wright Middle School appeared on the district's intervention list year despite posting significant learning gains over the previous three years. Wright Principal Jud Haynie is grateful for the new system as he says it was disheartening to show growth each year but still appear on intervention lists because of the school's demographic – 92% of students qualify for reduced-price or free lunches and 30% don't speak English as a first language.
"My hope for this year is that we show our growth, that we're not about hitting some cutoff score, that they show they're moving on their journey from here to here," Haynie said, demonstrating a steep upward grade with his forearm.
However schools such as Clovercroft Elementary are more nervous about the changes. As the system requires a flat 3% minimum increase in learning gains and takes no account of the starting point of each student, those in already high achieving schools will have to work much harder to meet the targets. At Clovercroft only 3% of students take part in the Free Lunch Program and they already have the highest math scores in Williamson County.