by Vivian Jones
Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s announcement of COVID-19-related learning loss projections for Tennessee students took state lawmakers and school superintendents by surprise.
In a joint news conference with Gov. Bill Lee last week, Schwinn announced Tennessee students are expected to face learning loss of 50% in English and 65% in math, stressing the importance of in-person learning. Projections were based on national research and early results of beginning-of-year student checkpoint assessments in Tennessee.
“This press release really caught a lot of us off guard,” Henry County Schools Superintendent Leah Watkins told The Center Square. “I feel like this was a smack in the face of my educators, of my team, who have given up summer break to have had to change everything they do to make it work for a dual environment – virtual and in person. It just feels like an affront to the work that my team does.”
Schwinn did not give superintendents notice of the learning loss announcement on a regular conference call Wednesday morning before the Wednesday afternoon news conference, Watkins said. Superintendents received the data report Thursday evening, after an outpouring of distress.
“I’ve had about 21 superintendents call me furious about the Wednesday release,” state Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, told The Center Square. “They feel betrayed.”
Schwinn apologized to superintendents for the lack of notice on a phone call Friday.
“It’s heartbreaking to see this with no preparation, no opportunity to look at the data to question the data before it’s released,” Watkins said.
Superintendents have raised concerns with the data underlying the department’s projections. When questioned about the source of the data, Schwinn said Wednesday projections were based on a national learning loss study, as well as Tennessee student data collected from the department’s new beginning-of-year checkpoint tool, rolled out two years ahead of schedule in response to the pandemic.
“At this point, we’ve had over 30,000 students who’ve completed those beginning-of-year checkpoints, that’s given us a relatively good landscape or at least a prediction of what that will look like statewide,” Schwinn told reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday. “So those two data points together … have allowed us to be able to project what we think that learning loss measure is.”
Analysts at the education department incorporated data from beginning-of-year student checkpoints that school districts voluntarily submitted this year. Results from the checkpoint tests show students’ actual learning loss is consistent with the department’s projections of 50 to 65 percent loss, Victoria Robinson, a spokesperson for the department, confirmed to The Center Square. Beginning-of-year testing is ongoing.
The department combined student checkpoint data with data from two national studies: an April study conducted by Portland-based Northwest Evaluation Association, using nationwide student data from the 2017-2018 school year, and a Tennessee-focused study prepared for the department by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, using historical Tennessee student testing data from 2014 through 2019.
Already under fire for communications breakdowns between the department and the Tennessee Legislature and a high personnel turnover rate within the department under her leadership, Schwinn appeared before the House Education Committee last week for its annual summer study meeting.
“We hoped that we could draw a line in the sand in that committee meeting and work towards moving forward with better trust and better communication,” Cepicky said. “It’s disheartening to see the commissioner nod her head and say she is going to work hard on that, and then … on Wednesday, after we get out of here, they drop all this new data.”
Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, who last week called for a vote of no confidence in Schwinn, said he is “extremely concerned” with the leadership at the department and he plans to start an online petition asking the governor to replace Schwinn if there are any additional missteps.
“I don’t think Tennesseans were served by the Department of Education by making projections of learning losses regarding COVID for being out of school that are substantiated by the data based on 2017-2018 testing,” Griffey told The Center Square. “That’s extremely misleading and deceptive, and this is just another sort of chink in the armor as to why I think we need new leadership at the Department of Education.”
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