Five of Tennessee's leading gubernatorial candidates on Tuesday evening touted the need for student tests that work, and teacher evaluations that are reliable.

The cordial, hour-long forum at Belmont University featured few disagreements and plenty of promises from the three Republicans and two Democrats on stage.

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The candidates fell along party lines on two issues: offering in-state college tuition rates for undocumented immigrants and expanding publicly funded pre-kindergarten programming.

The Republican candidates -- former state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and Williamson County business leader Bill Lee -- largely opposed in-state tuition for non-citizens. The Democratic candidates, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, support the idea.

Republican Beth Harwell, Democrat Craig Fitzhugh, Democrat Karl Dean, Republican Bill Lee, and Republican Randy Boyd during the gubernatorial forum on education at Belmont University in Nashville on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Photo: The Tennessean

They also favor expanding pre-k programs, while the Republican candidates argued there must be more attention to quality of pre-k programming than expansion.

Ongoing problems plague TN Ready, the standardized evaluations recently implemented in schools across the state. In turn, teacher evaluations based on student testing performance are fraught with mistrust given TN Ready's unreliability.

MORE: Keeping up with the candidates: Who's running for governor?

However, no candidate thought it was time to move away from performance-based teacher evaluations or some form of standarized testing.

"When the scoreboard breaks, you don’t just stop keeping score. You fix the scoreboard," said Boyd, a Republican.

Harwell, R-Nashville, noted as a former college professor she didn't get into the profession to administer tests. At the same time, tax payers deserve to know their education system works, she said.

"Teachers do not mind accountability, what they want is credibility in that testing system," Harwell said.

Noting his business experience, Lee said it's important to create an assessment that includes teacher input and support.

"When we bring testing and assessments and mandates to them, we need to be certain that what we’re asking of them is making the classroom and education system better," Lee said.

Democrats routinely criticize teacher evaluations that rely on student test scores, noting the problems with standardized tests and few ramifications for students if they perform poorly. Dean and Fitzhugh said teachers do not mind accountability.

"Evaluations shouldn’t be punitive. The idea is to help people move forward," Dean said.

Fitzhugh continually stressed the need to restore respect and increase salaries for teachers.

"Teachers have taken it on the chin, and we need to not let that happen," He said.

Earlier Tuesday, Gov. Bill Haslam said he looked forward to the forum.

"The debate tonight, I am really pleased it's starting off on education, because I think whoever is governor, education should continue to be the focus," Haslam told reporters Tuesday morning.

Former state Sen. Mae Beavers was slated to attend the event but could not due to the sudden death of her mother.

"SCORE (an organization sponsoring the debate) is focused on educational issues and you will not find a candidate more passionate about the education of all our children," Beavers said in the statement.

She highlighted several policy focuses, including, "children need to be able to read by 3rd grade before going onto higher levels."

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, considered by some the frontrunner in the GOP primary, did not attend Tuesday, citing a scheduling conflict.

SCORE, an education advocacy organization, estimated attendance at more than 1,200 people.

Reach Dave Boucher at or 615-259-8892 and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1. Reach Jason Gonzales at and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.