A bill that removes the Tennessee Department of Education’s ability to administer standardized tests to students in grades K-2 passed the House Education Committee Wednesday.
The road to the passage of the legislation was a long one, starting back in January 2019 when it was originally filed by Representative Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough).
The companion Senate Bill SB 0496, filed by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) did not advance last year either from her February 2019 filing date.
During his presentation of HB 0038 to the House Education Committee Wednesday, Van Huss said he is not an expert on education, but was motivated by a letter he received from a teacher eight years ago.
Now retired after teaching 25 years, relayed Van Huss, the teacher was “tired of having to train for a test. She just wanted to be able to teach again.”
Furthermore, he went on to say that for eight years he has heard similar sentiments and that “high stakes standardized tests are not appropriate for five-year olds.”
As such, he explained his legislation would “prohibit the state from mandating any test, assessment or evaluation of students pre-K through second grade for the purposes of measuring performance, growth or achievement of a teacher or student,” with a limited number of exceptions including the Federally-mandated IDEA, dyslexia screening, English language learners, RTI (Response to Intervention) and Governor Bill Lee’s reading proficiency.
“In all transparency,” Van Huss continued, “if this committee does not pass the Governor’s language proficiency – which I don’t agree with,” he would want to amend the legislation to take that part out.
The representative also said he was going to “come straight out” about the Department of Education’s concerns with the bill.
“Their concerns with the bill is not something I’m worried about fixing, because the Department of Education’s concerns with this bill and my concerns about getting the Department of Education off the backs of my teachers and my students, they just butt heads,” he said. “I know the Department of Education does not want this to happen, but that is my aim. That is my aim to stop all standardized testing and assessments for our kids.”
There was debate for about a half hour, with about 10 of the 24 members commenting, when Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) made a motion to send the bill back to a subcommittee.
Before the vote, Chairman White let Van Huss, as the bill sponsor, make closing comments.
During his final pitch, he pointed out that the testimony just heard by two representatives of the Department of Education, there was nothing but excuses for why they hadn’t acted on a bill that passed last year to remedy the “portfolio” problem.
“You can let bureaucrats speak for your constituents, or you can speak for your constituents,” he challenged the committee members before the vote.
On a roll call vote on whether to send the bill back to the House K-12 Education Subcommittee, it failed with 17 No and 7 Yes votes.
Literally coming to the table to address the committee, Ms. Cook, a teacher for 20 years and a kindergarten teacher for the last 10 years testified that she is passionate about her profession.
In her comments, Cook went on to use the term best known for the testing – “portfolio” – a student-evidenced growth measure for pre-k and kindergarten teachers.
Cook is a leader in her school and serves as a portfolio leader in her county. In addition, she has been a reviewer for portfolio in last two years who will be scoring again this year.
The bottom line from she is that the portfolio model has failed miserably.
As such, the teacher hoping the House Education Committee members will “recognize a problem and choose to act, she asked them to “support all efforts to eliminate portfolio.”
The meeting then turned to questions and answers between committee members and her.
The final question to Ms. Cook, asked by Representative John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), was whether the existing RTI (Response To Intervention) assessments – which are allowed in the proposed legislation –would be adequate for the state to evaluate its return on investment.
“Yes,” Cook confirmed.
Before going to the vote on the amendment, Chairman White pointed out to the sponsor that the bill opens up Title 49 in its entirety. As he often does, Chairman White asked if the bill is amended on the House floor would the sponsor bring it back to the committee.
“I will not,” Van Huss responded emphatically.
“Okay. You’re on record,” responded White.
On a roll call vote, there were 17 Ayes and 6 No votes, thereby approving the amendment which makes the bill.
With a fiscal note of “not significant,” HB 0038 advanced to the Calendar & Rules Committee to be scheduled for the House floor.
As soon as Calendar & Rules Committee Chairman Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) brought up the bill on Thursday morning, Education Committee Chairman White’s hand shot up. He told Calendar & Rules Committee members, out of respect for them, that the bill sponsor would not agree to bring the bill back to the Education Committee if it was amended on the House floor.
As such, White made a motion in Calendar & Rules to roll the bill one week so he could work with the sponsor to understand the bill.
Van Huss was recognized for comment, and he said that he doesn’t believe that one committee should have the power to tie the hands of the rest of the body. If there are amendments to the bill, added Van Huss, “it’s because the people’s representatives did it.”
On a roll call vote, the motion to roll the bill for a week failed by a vote of 5 in favor of the one-week roll and 20 against it.
After about 20 minutes of discussion on the motion and the roll call vote, HB 0038 was placed on the regular calendar for the House floor session on March 19.
In a written statement after the passage of his bill through the House Education Committee, Van Huss said, “Teaching is a profession unlike any other. It takes an enormous amount of passion, commitment and hard work to walk into a classroom every day and give your best. This bill is about giving teachers back the time to do what they entered the profession to do: teach.”
After passage in the House Calendar & Rules Committee and the efforts in both committees to stop or delay his legislation, Van Huss told The Tennessee Star about the outcome, “It’s time for the people to be heard.”
More to the purpose of his legislation, Van Huss also told The Star, “Putting teachers and students under the microscope stifles creativity, innovation and motivation.”
The companion Senate bill SB 0496 has been placed on the Senate Education Committee calendar for March 16.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.