Let's Pass a Law to Keep Secret Stuff That's Been Secret Under Four Governors

Sometime I think I've entered Bizarro World when I view public policy issues being argued in the Tennessee Legislature.

I was an early proponent of value-added testing of teachers and spent time out on the University of Tennessee campus talking with Dr. William Sanders, the godfather of the Tennessee testing program. Gov. Ned McWherter was determined to enact education reform and his chief policy adviser, Billy Stair, immediately saw the testing program as significant reform and a McWherter legacy.

The proponents at the time decided the scores would be kept secret at first. It is unfair to judge a teacher on one year's scores. Sometimes there are just "bad classes" and other factors that are not representative of a teacher's career. It was generally believed that once three to five years' worth of scores had been accumulated, an average score for a teacher would be fair and ought to be released.

But almost 20 years later the education establishment has been successful in keeping the scores secret. In fact, it has only been in very recent years that school administrators have even been able to use the scores as part of a teacher's evaluation. Over the years no media organization has sued or even made an issue about the scores not being public.

Some conservatives have argued that releasing the scores would prompt parents to bring the heat on bad teachers and bring about real "education reform." Their arguments fell on deaf ears.

Then came No Child Left Behind, nationwide testing, and scores being compiled in every state. News organizations from The New York Times to the New York Post used the Freedom of Information Act to force the release of the scores. There followed feature stories on teachers and their scores.

The release of scores elsewhere is what probably prompted the Haslam administration to admit to the Nashville City Paper that if someone pushed the matter, state scores would likely have to be released. This led to a panicked, hurry-up effort to pass a law forbidding the release of the scores.

The suggestion of secret scores and a hurry-up bill to close records led to the knee-jerk reaction of press organizations screaming about the process. Even though the bill is designed to keep secret the scores press organizations have studiously avoided challenging for four gubernatorial administrations.

(The use of a caption bill to draft the new law, far from being a bizarre underhanded trick, is a housekeeping measure used every session. Conditions change during session after the deadline for filing bills. Captions on education, finances, taxes, the environment and education are filed each year and are sitting there for use when needed. Not that caption bills haven't been used for underhanded tricks, but it is not necessarily a devious plot. )

The speed with which this law has been fast-tracked is a concern. There ought to be a thorough study on the possible effects of releasing test scores. It's about time the issue was discussed and the public asked to provide input. I think most parents would like to know what the scores have been recorded by their child's teacher.

I'm not sure how I feel about the release of the scores. I know it would be disruptive. I know some teachers would be adversely affected, possibly unfairly. Unless the scores are averaged and put in some sort of context, they will likely cause confusion and lead to false conclusions.

But don't parents have a right to discover if the school system has been using the scores correctly to replace or re-train bad teachers? If they haven't, do the parents have a right to know that the teacher entrusted with their child is known to his/her employer to be a bad teacher?

The scores have to be secret or they should be presented, for multiple years, and in context. If they aren't secret someone will demand them and they will be on the Web. And whoever puts them up may or may not know or care what format to use to provide meaningful information.

It needs time and discussion and thoughtfulness. But that doesn't sound much like the Legislature, does it?