Tennessee 3rd-grade retention law will intensify Memphis students’ pandemic woes, local critics say

A woman at a microphone with an index card addresses two people in the audience in a small room.
Natalie McKinney, executive director and co-founder of Whole Child Strategies Inc., listens to questions from the audience at a Memphis town hall on the state’s third-grade retention policy. McKinney moderated the gathering, which attracted around 50 people. (Tonyaa Weathersbee / Chalkbeat)

Many Memphis youths are already struggling to overcome emotional and psychological trauma inflicted or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the specter of being held back in third grade if they can’t pass the state’s reading test will pile onto that trauma, Memphis and Shelby County child and education advocates said during a town hall Wednesday.

“I don’t want my babies that I’m responsible for caught up in this,” said Ian Randolph, board treasurer for Circles of Success Learning Academy charter school. 

“They’re trying their best to meet our expectations as educators, and you put this kind of crap on top of them, after going through a pandemic … now you want to put more pressure on them to meet a state expectation?”

Randolph was among the roughly 50 people who gathered at First Congregational Church to discuss — and to lambaste — Tennessee’s strict third grade retention law, which kicks in this year. The law requires that third-grade students who don’t demonstrate reading proficiency on the TCAP assessment for English language arts participate in tutoring or summer learning programs, or risk being held back from the fourth grade. (Some students are automatically exempt.)

The law, passed in 2021 during a special legislative session that Gov. Bill Lee called to address pandemic learning loss, also included funding for tutoring and summer learning camps to help struggling third graders catch up.

But those aspects of the law became unworkable for many families, some attendees said, because of issues ranging from a shortage of tutors to confusion about how progress is measured on the tests the students take after the recovery camps. 

Barring changes in the law, thousands of Memphis students face the prospect of having to repeat third grade. According to data presented by Venita Doggett, director of advocacy for the Memphis Education Fund, 78% of third-graders in Memphis-Shelby County Schools could be held back this year, while 65% of third-graders could be retained statewide.

The figure would be closer to 80% for Black, Hispanic and Native American third-graders in MSCS, and 83% for low-income students.

The implications of those figures resonated with Natalie McKinney, executive director and co-founder of Whole Child Strategies Inc., a nonprofit that supports families and children in the Klondike and Smokey City neighborhoods in Memphis.

The retention law, she said, would have a disparate impact on children in those neighborhoods, where 1 in 3 residents are poor, and 70% of the schoolchildren are from low-income families. 

“They’ve all been impacted emotionally by the pandemic,” said McKinney, who moderated the town hall. The retention policy “doesn’t make any sense.”

Lee and other defenders of the law say that it’s needed to avoid pushing unprepared students ahead, and that holding students back who aren’t proficient in reading is part of the state’s post-pandemic recovery efforts.

“If you really care about a child’s future, the last thing you should do is push them past the third grade if they can’t read,” the governor once told Chalkbeat.

But even some of his political allies have expressed concerns about enforcing the law based on the result of a single test. 

Already, Doggett said, 19 proposals have been filed to amend the law — bills that range from nixing the retention requirement altogether to extending funding for summer camps and other aid beyond this year. 

Pending the outcome of those efforts, organizers of the town hall urged attendees to sign a letter they had drafted asking Lee to issue an executive order to waive the retention policy for third graders testing below proficiency this year.

“The current 3rd grade class of 2022 and 2023 were the students who were affected by the pandemic,” the letter reads. “Studies show that a tremendous amount of learning loss occurred due to these students being virtual in the previous grades. In addition, these studies showed (that) to recoup the loss during the pandemic would take years.

“The third grade retention law seems to hold these students and educators accountable for something that was new to this generation for which they had no control,” the letter said.

The letter also urges lawmakers to use more criteria than a single test to determine whether a student should be retained, and to focus on broader solutions, such as partnering with community agencies, to help students recover from pandemic learning loss.

Besides sending a letter to Lee, opponents of the retention policy said they planned to pressure their local public officials to push back on the law, as many school boards have. Some called for the MSCS school board, the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission to issue a joint resolution supporting the waiver.

The two MSCS board members who attended the meeting in person, Amber Huett-Garcia and Michelle McKissack, said they intend to push for revisions to the law. 

“Let me be clear: This is not a good law. I do not support it,” said Huett-Garcia, who said she plans a trip to Nashville in early March to talk directly with lawmakers.

“The mood that I have gotten from legislators is that they know that they have not gotten this right,” she said, “but this is not the time to let up pressure.” 

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Contact her at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.

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