It was music to the ears of his biggest critics — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, discussing standardized testing, sounded much like them as he gave leeway to one of his bedrock education policies.
In a blog last week that surprised many, Duncan wrote that testing issues are "sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools." He then told states they could request a one-year delay from tying student test results to evaluations of teachers as classrooms shift to tougher academic standards.
Tennessee, though — a favorite of President Obama's education secretary and one of the first states to pilot a systematic evaluation of teachers — won't be one of them as it begins the fourth year of its evaluation system.
For three years now, this state has already given teachers annual grades that rely on a rubric that includes student test results.
A delay in Tennessee would mean a retreat.
"Most states are behind where Tennessee is in this process, so most states haven't got to the point where they're touting it," said Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, a strong supporter of the system known as Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model.
"For me, the decision about what we do isn't about what the federal government says. It's based on what helps Tennessee kids improve. We've seen really good outcomes here in Tennessee over the last three years academically."
Indeed, state officials here have taken ownership of teacher evaluations. Huffman has rarely gone out of his way to connect it to the federal program that propelled states like Tennessee to grade teachers in a way that includes learning gains of students, known as value-added data.
Tennessee rewrote several education laws, which included adopting an evaluation system for teachers, to land $501 million in federal Race to the Top dollars four years ago. Other states have adopted similar systems in exchange for waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Duncan, unveiling plans for new flexibility for states, wrote that "assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning," — yet he said it "should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students' progress."
"No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be," he wrote. "It's simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support."
He also acknowledged that some states, especially those well along in their transition, would not need a reprieve.
Thirty-five percent of teachers' evaluation scores in Tennessee is based off student growth on tests via value-added data, while other student achievement information forms another 15 percent and in-class observations the remaining half.
The state's leading teachers' organization, the Tennessee Education Association, was originally on board with that system when Tennessee applied for the Race to the Top grant. Last year, however, it pulled its support of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System in high-stakes decisions, arguing that as a statistical estimate, it is subject to error and thus unfair.
TEA scored a win when the legislature blocked the use of TVAAS in teacher-licensing decisions last year. The group has also waged a handful of lawsuits on the use of it in evaluations.
Jim Wrye, lobbyist for TEA, likened Huffman's continued support following Duncan's comments as "doubling down" on evaluations and said it didn't surprise him.
He didn't rule out the possibility of targeting the removal of TVAAS from evaluations during the next session.
"What was clear last year is the more that we dig down into it, the more wildly inappropriately it seems to put teachers in the crosshair based on a statistical formula," he said.