From new leaders at the statehouse and Tennessee’s largest districts, to an uncertain future for the state’s turnaround district, and yet another change in testing – there are a lot of important details to keep track of as a new school year begins.

The stakes are high in Tennessee.

  • The state wants 75% of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025 — a big lift from the 37% currently at that threshold.
  • It has come under fire because its state-run turnaround district has not been as successful as hoped, much like other turnaround districts in the nation.
  • Its testing program has been a work in progress for three years as the state struggles to transition to an online system.

Now that summer break is officially over for Tennessee, we have a little bit of homework for you. Catch up on three of the big stories affecting Tennessee schools – and let us know what we’re missing or what you will be watching this school year. We’re always listening at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

1. So many new leaders.

Tennessee’s State Department of Education, as well as the state’s two largest school districts, are heading into their first new school year after major leadership changes.

Penny Schwinn, most recently at the state department in Texas, was named the state’s top education official in February and was hired in part for her positive track record with state testing. Schwinn has offered up a first draft of what her big initiatives will be, and she and her new hires have been working on a strategic plan for the state’s schools that’s set to be released this fall.

One issue Schwinn says is already on her radar is the mental health of Tennessee’s students.

“Without question, it’s the No. 1 piece of feedback I heard from every single group,” Schwinn told Chalkbeat in June. “There is a growing concern about how we can support our children, not only academically but also behaviorally.”

Nashville and Memphis public schools – the state’s two largest school districts – also have new leaders and initiatives headed into the school year.

Two interims, Joris Ray at Shelby County Schools and Adrienne Battle at Metro Nashville Public Schools, ascended to leadership positions this past spring. Battle was given a two-year contract, while Ray received a four-year contract.

Ray is carving out his own initiatives, including one for black male students, who he has said is one of the district’s most vulnerable groups. He is also focusing on getting 90% of district’s third-grade students on reading level by the year 2025, and pressing pause on the district’s building consolidation plan in order to collect more community input.

According to the Tennessean, Battle will seek to address declining academic growth in the district’s high schools and the growing number of Nashville schools on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

2. Foreshadowing the future of the Achievement School District.

Tennessee’s state-run district is starting its eighth school year – but without a permanent leader.

Known turnaround leader Sharon Griffin resigned from her post as superintendent of the Achievement School District in June, about a year after she was named its fourth leader in seven years. Her appointment was significant as she was a native Memphian, and most of the achievement district schools are in Memphis. She has moved on to work alongside Battle in Nashville public schools.

The district has two interims at the helm, and the state education department says it plans to conduct a national search for a permanent replacement.

Griffin’s resignation came as Gov. Bill Lee and Schwinn were looking closely at the state-run district’s turnaround model and its failure to significantly improve its low-performing schools. Griffin’s departure followed growing tensions between Griffin — a hands-on leader who wanted to play a bigger role in day-to-day school operations — and charter operators who were promised autonomy to take on those schools.

Now, the achievement district faces an uncertain future. Schwinn has said that major structural changes are coming to the district but has yet to describe what that will look like. However, she has said that no new schools would be taken over by the state, and some schools might leave.

3. A return to paper testing for this school year.

All Tennessee students will take their state tests on paper this year after the legislature decided to give the state’s new testing company more time to prepare computer-based tests.

Until this spring, Tennessee had seen three straight years of problems administering and scoring its annual tests under two different vendors, starting with the failed transition to online testing under North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. Testing went off without a hitch this past school year under test-maker Questar, and Pearson won a bid to take over Tennessee testing this year. While Pearson will only administer paper tests to the state’s students this year, the state education department has said the goal is to continue moving toward online testing.