A move by the state Department of Education to make exams better aligned to Common Core standards has delayed the release of end-of-year test scores, leaving school systems scrambling for answers.
The unexpected 10-day postponement will mean a four-year-old law designed to give more meaning to standardized tests won't be applied to many students.
State education officials on Wednesday agreed to offer waivers to all local districts that request to be shielded from a 2010 statute that required a student's score on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program account for 15 to 25 percent of the student's final grades.
Earlier in the day, districts from across the state — including Murfreesboro, Sumner County, Knox County and Metro Nashville — had revealed plans to make that request.
Other districts, however, such as Williamson County Schools, don't plan to ask for the waiver, postponing the release of report cards until TCAP scores are computed. Report cards there won't be sent home until June 11.
State officials first alerted Tennessee's school directors of the delay on Tuesday afternoon, explaining that the state had narrowed assessments this year to eliminate factors not aligned with state standards and needed 10 more days to thoroughly review the results.
The state was able to release scores for end-of-year exams for high school students in order to meet graduation requirements.
It won't be able to do the same, however, for the TCAP exam taken by third- through eighth-grade students until the end of next week.
"We recognize that delaying quick score release has an impact on finalizing student grades and report cards, and apologize for the inconvenience for you and your teams," Erin O'Hara, the education department's assistant commissioner for data and research, wrote in a letter Tuesday to alert superintendents.
In Williamson County, Superintendent Mike Looney called it "absolutely unacceptable and absurd for us to find out the same day [TCAP] scores were to be back." Report cards had been set to go home with Williamson County students Wednesday, that district's final day of school.
"It has put every school district in the state of Tennessee in an untenable position," Looney said.
He pointed to the inability to decide who needs to attend summer school, but said he would not seek a waiver: "Our students and teachers have worked very, very hard this year knowing that the TCAP was part of the grading mechanism in Williamson County."
Other critics expressed bewilderment on the timing.
"The state cites a change in assessments this school year as the reason for the delay," said Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford. "Why are districts just now being informed about something that the department has known about for months?"
Democrats who have hounded Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman over his education reforms, meanwhile, pounced on the delay.
"While Commissioner Huffman has pushed for more and more accountability for our teachers, his own department has yet to be called to account for their own failures," House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said.
The news left local officials sizing up their calendars.
In a letter detailing Metro's request, Director of Schools Jesse Register said the unexpected delay meant results with TCAP scores factored in wouldn't be available in time for Nashville teachers to enter grades before they leave for the summer on June 2.
"It takes tremendous manpower to manually enter grades in four separate subjects for over 35,000 students, and we cannot adequately meet this challenge without the assistance of our teachers," he wrote.
A neighboring system, though, doesn't anticipate problems. Officials from Wilson County Schools said because of a scheduled teacher work day on May 30, they will stick to plans to mail report cards out after then. If the TCAP scores still aren't available, the system would explore other options.
O'Hara, in her letter, said districts can either delay releasing final grades until after the state provides scores or revise grades once scores are available.
Huffman, at the helm since 2011, has twice before granted this TCAP waiver to Promise Academy, a Memphis charter school. A new law passed this year has enabled the state to extend waivers to all schools in addition to charters.
"If they need to ask for a waiver, they can," Huffman said. "Our goal is to get accuracy over speed."
In an email to state lawmakers Wednesday, Dan Lawson, director of Tullahoma City Schools, critiqued the communications of the education department. Last fall, Lawson led the push for dozens of superintendents to sign a letter questioning Huffman's leadership.
His latest letter continued that theme.
"How do we consider the actions of the TDOE consistent with any reasonable and prudent management decision that we all expect and require at all levels of effective governance?" he wrote.
How the state says it happened
State officials decided to complete a process called post-equating before releasing test results this year.
Commonly used in large-scale testing, post-equating involves comparing student performance on certain test items that are repeated each year to make sure results are statistically valid.
Normally this happens after early scores are released, but because of changes to the test this year, officials say they decided to do it before releasing scores.
The test was narrowed to remove portions that don't align with new Common Core standards. Classrooms across the state have been phasing in the standards for three years, but the state has not switched to a test designed to match those new standards.