Retention rule in reading law could hold back over 2,700 MSCS 3rd-graders, official warns

A display of colorful picture books, including some about Black history.
More than 2,700 third-graders in Memphis-Shelby County schools are at risk of being held back under Tennessee’s retention law for struggling readers, a MSCS official warns. (Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat)

More than 2,700 third-graders in Memphis-Shelby County schools are at risk of being held back under Tennessee’s retention law for struggling readers, a MSCS official told the board’s Academic Performance Committee Thursday.

The numbers are based on students’ performance on the i-Ready reading proficiency diagnostic assessments that are administered nationally and were given to MSCS third-graders last winter. 

Those assessments serve as predictors of how students will perform on the English language arts section of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test, or TCAP, which is the sole criterion used to identify students for retention under the state’s stricter reading law passed in 2021. 

Of the 6,748 MSCS third-graders who took the winter tests, 4,196 students scored below a cutoff that would call for further intervention under the retention law, according to data presented by Jaron Carson, chief academic officer for MSCS.  

Of those 4,196 third-graders, 1,409 would be exempt from the retention law because of a disability or an individualized education plan, or because they are English language learners. 

That leaves 2,787 MSCS third-graders who could be held back this year if the winter assessments accurately predict their scores on the spring TCAPs, Carson said. 

But Carson also presented recommendations to the committee to reduce the likelihood of retention for those students. They included pushing for a change in the state law to allow third-graders to take the English language arts section of the TCAP three times.

Suggested dates were April 17-21, June 12-26 and July 8-19.

Right now, students in grades 3 to 5 take the TCAP from April 17 to May 2. The state Education Department will also hold a TCAP retake for third-graders from May 30 to June 2.

In Mississippi, which has been lauded for boosting its ranking for the fourth-grade reading proficiency rate from 49th in the nation to 29th, third-graders get three chances to pass its reading assessment test. Carson cited Mississippi’s successes in making his recommendations.

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Another recommendation was to give third-graders unlimited time on the third-grade English language arts test, or more time to complete certain sections.

The recommendations come amid growing concerns about the impact of the law in Tennessee, and a flurry of efforts in the legislature to revise it. Three weeks ago, critics of the law gathered at First Congregational Church in Memphis and voiced worries about the law, including what they saw as unfairness that a single test would determine whether a child is promoted, and the lack of tutors available to help students who needed to catch up.

But Gov. Bill Lee has stuck by the law with the stricter retention policy, which he pushed for during a special legislative session on education in 2021 to deal with the impact of the pandemic. 

MSCS board member Amber Huett-Garcia, who attended the meeting at the church and who has spoken with lawmakers about possible revisions, didn’t sound optimistic about the chances of Carson’s recommendations being adopted.

“About 2,700 students are likely going to get a retention letter, and we have to be prepared to navigate that process,” she said.

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

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