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Education professionals see this as an injustice to public schools.

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In Tennessee, a polarizing school grading system

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Green Hill High School in Mount Juliet, Tennessee.

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A letter grade system for schools: this is what the US state of Tennessee, where the legislature is dominated by Republicans, is implementing. Public schools will now be graded from the letter A to the letter F, in particular based on the results of their students and their improvement.

However, this system does not apply to private schools. At the same time, the Tennessee government launched a major private school enrollment grant program. These reforms are causing dismay among many education professionals, who perceive a growing hostility toward public schools.

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Green Hill High School should not suffer much from this new system. This establishment, which opened in 2020, is located in an affluent, white suburb of Nashville. What I understand is that we are going to get a B, explains the dynamic director Kevin Dawson, met in his office.

He says he sees the idea of ​​such a system, but he has reservations. There are many ways to measure effectiveness in education. Is it student improvement? Their success in exams?

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Green Hill High School principal Kevin Dawson believes his school will get at least a B.

The four criteria by which secondary schools will be evaluated are student achievement on standardized tests, overall improvement, improvement of the bottom 25% and the degree of preparation for further studies. The first criterion, namely student success on standardized tests, accounts for half of the final score awarded to schools.

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This will not be not representative of what a school is capable of accomplishing or not, regrets the director.

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Green Hill High School is almost new; it opened in 2020.

Education Commissioner Lizette Reynolds defended the new system, saying it is a powerful communications tool for parents, which will allow them to better differentiate between schools. Kevin Dawson, however, anticipates direct consequences on his school.

It will certainly have an impact on hiring and morale. We get our grade at the end of the year. You have to wait another whole school year to succeed in changing it.

“It’s my favorite topic to discuss,” says Mary Batiwalla from the outset when we meet her. She worked at the Tennessee Department of Education for years and served as deputy commissioner there. In his eyes, the letter grading system is an aberration.

I don’t believe this is the right method to improve our schools, she says at first in a measured tone. But the more she talks about it, the more evident her outrage becomes.

Mary Batiwalla believes this system will not help schools improve and she anticipates stigmatization in some circles. The Department of Education conducted forecasting analyzes when she worked there. Schools that got an A were those with the fewest students in poverty, and those that got an F were those with the most, she says.

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Mary Batiwalla is concerned about the consequences of the new system on schools that serve a population in poverty.

And in Tennessee, as in several other states, poverty affects certain communities more. There is a very strong correlation between being in poverty and being from a historically underserved community, such as African American students.

Tennessee Association of Educational Professionals Director JC Bowman served on the task force that studied the new grading system. We didn't spend a lot of time on it and we never reached consensus, he says.

He deplores the fact that the system is being implemented despite everything. And he denounces the fact that private schools are not subject to the same system.

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JC Bowman believes that the debates over the new grading system were done too quickly.

Especially since in parallel with this new rating of public schools, the government of Tennessee announced last November a subsidy program for parents who want to send their children… at private school. This program will provide up to $7,000 per child and is expected to become available to all Tennessee families in 2025.

It's a system that exists to say, "Look, these public schools are bad. You don't want to send your child there? Well, you now have access to taxpayer money to send your child to the private school of your choice, complains Ms. Batiwalla.

Like JC Bowman, she believes that the first to benefit from this new paradigm will be private Christian schools. There is a religious motive, she affirms.

She bases herself in particular on the example of Florida, where the implementation of #x27;a similar grant program contributed to a nearly 5% increase in enrollment in Catholic schools, one of the largest increases in the country.

According to the organization Step Up For Students, the number of students who used a government subsidy to enroll in a private Catholic school has more than tripled over the past year. last decade.

Violette Cantin is the recipient of the Experimenting Journalism Abroad grant from the Fondation de l'UQAM .

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