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Tennessee leaders cite old data to pressure schools to reopen

Updated: Jan. 24, 2021 at 5:47 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Despite new data suggesting COVID-19 learning loss wasn’t as severe as predicted, state leaders continue to use old data, which some have called misleading, to pressure school districts like Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person classes.

In a speech to legislators last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said preliminary data showed a 50% decrease in reading proficiency and a 65% decrease in math proficiency for third graders.

The governor’s office also cited the same figures in a press release in late December, announcing a special session on education.

“Preliminary data projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd-grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math,” the press release read. “This loss only exacerbates issues that existed prior to the pandemic, where only one-third of Tennessee third graders were reading on grade level.”

WMC Action News 5 asked the governor’s office and the Tennessee Department of Education where the governor got his numbers.

Victoria Robinson, the director of communications for the education department, sent an email, explaining the numbers were based on an April 2020 study from NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association).

NWEA used historical data before the pandemic to predict a major learning loss from the virus forcing schools to close nationwide.

In addition, Robinson said CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) offered to do a Tennessee-specific study in September “using historical Tennessee TCAP and NWEA data.”

“After gut checking the NWEA and CREDO trends with early participation in start of the year checkpoints, the department released their projections of learning loss in Tennessee from prolonged school closures,” Robinson said.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn was accused of misleading the public when she used the same historical data last September.

“I think it’s a justification to force the students back into the classrooms, “State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said at the time.

NWEA followed up with another report in November. This time, researchers used testing data from the fall of 2020.

Though noting it was still too early to draw definitive conclusions, they said learning loss wasn’t as steep as they feared.

“This fall, students scored better than NWEA’s projections in reading, while math scores were in line with our projections for grades 4–6 and slightly above our projections in grades 7–8,” the study’s authors said.

They said students in grades 3-8 performed similarly to the year before, though math scores were lower 5 to 10 percentile points.

Shelby County Schools also released its own data in November, showing that while learning loss did occur in reading and math, it wasn’t as bad as predicted.

For instance, 28% of students placed below grade level in reading compared to 27% historically.

In math, 29% of students placed below grade level compared to 23% historically.

Despite the newer data, the governor and his administration continue to use projections from the April NWEA study to pressure school districts like SCS to reopen to in-person classes.

“I think kids need to be in school. We’re going to continue to encourage, work with districts, work with others to make that happen,” said Lee.

Lee criticized districts that had not returned to in-person classes last week, saying scientific data has shown it’s safe to hold in-person classes.

“You can’t say ‘Follow the science’ and keep schools closed. You can’t say ‘I believe in public education’ and keep schools closed. And you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed,” said Lee.

SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray responded to Lee in a statement a short time later.

“Watching state leaders call for in-person learning on the state legislature’s virtual video meeting today sends a mixed and hypocritical message. We invite state leaders to step away from privileged podiums and try to understand the many concerns of our students, parents, and teachers,” Ray said.

Ray said SCS will not bow to pressure and will return to in-person classes when it’s safe.

“In Memphis and Shelby County, and in other urban areas in America, nearly everyone knows someone who has been seriously ill or died from COVID-19. It is disingenuous to think that the children of poor families need any less protection than children in other settings,” said Ray. “We will continue to follow science and encourage others to review the impact of mask mandates while we wait for vaccines to be prioritized for educators.”

Ray said virtual school isn’t perfect, but it’s not broken.

SCS delayed its phased reopening in January.

The district said students will return to in-person classes no earlier than Feb. 8.

Legislation that would withhold funding from school districts that didn’t offer in-person classes was not taken up during the special session last week.

But it could be considered in the regular session.

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