Changes in Tennessee retention law will come too late for third graders this year

A girl in a white and blue shirt with black shirt sits at a tan desk.
Tennessee students in grades 3-5 will take their TCAP tests on paper during the testing window that runs from April 17 to May 5. Students in grades 6-8 will take their tests online. (real444 / Getty Images)

Tennessee lawmakers are moving toward a consensus on how to improve the state’s controversial new third-grade retention policy for struggling readers, but whatever they decide won’t be in time for this year’s class of third graders.

Those students, who were in kindergarten when the pandemic began, face the highest stakes when the state’s testing window opens next week for grades 3-8 under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.

In a Senate finance committee this week, Republicans quashed Sen. Jeff Yarbro’s proposal to delay implementation of the strict retention policy for one year. 

“We are too late for this year,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg of Bristol when Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, asked if anything in the proposed changes for next year would alleviate concerns about this year’s launch.

“I have significant concerns that we are not ready,” Yarbro countered, “and that, even more importantly, our schools and our families are not ready for the disruptions that this is going to cause this year.”

But the GOP-controlled committee stuck with its plan and advanced a bill under which, beginning next year, Tennessee would widen criteria for determining which third graders are at risk of being held back if they aren’t deemed proficient readers. 

Unless the full legislature intervenes before adjourning in the next few weeks, this year’s decisions on who gets held back or sent to remedial programs will be based solely on TCAP reading test results. That’s the current criterion under a 2021 law that lawmakers passed in response to pandemic learning losses.

If the proposed revisions are approved as expected, the state would widen criteria beginning with the 2023-24 school year to consider results from a second state-provided benchmark test, too — but only for third graders who score as “approaching” proficiency on their TCAP.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure next Tuesday.

The 2021 law also established summer learning and tutoring programs to help struggling students catch up.

This year’s third graders who score as “approaching” reading proficiency must attend a summer learning camp and demonstrate “adequate growth” on a test administered at the camp’s end, or they must participate in a tutoring program during fourth grade. 

Third graders who score “below” proficiency, which is the bottom category of results, must participate in both intervention programs. (There are exemptions. To learn more about Tennessee’s current retention and remediation policy, visit the state education department’s answers to frequently asked questions.)

The existing policy is expected to affect thousands of students this year.

Last fall, when the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents examined TCAP data for the state’s 70,000 third graders in 2021-22, the group found that about 45% of them would have been affected if the new retention policy had applied to them, before any exemptions were considered.

And in Memphis-Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, officials estimate that more than 2,700 third-graders are at risk of being held back.

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Dale Lynch, executive director of the superintendents group, about implications of the learning and retention law, both this year and next year. Here are five questions and answers:

What should Tennesseans understand about the status of the state’s third-grade reading and learning support law?

Dale Lynch is executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what’s happening in the legislature with this law. A lot of people think that someone is going to wave a magic wand and all of this will go away. But there’s no chance the legislature will completely do away with the law they passed in their special session in 2021. And nothing’s going to happen this year to change third-grade retention policies for this year’s students. We’re talking about next year.

What about this year, though? What’s happening now with our third-grade students, their families, and their teachers?

There’s a lot of anxiety, especially as TCAPs approach. Parents are feeling a great deal of stress, and the pressure being put on third-grade teachers is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, our superintendents are trying to figure out how to staff an appropriate summer school program to provide these interventions for more students. How many kids will we have? We don’t know yet. Districts are supposed to get the raw score data from TCAPs by May 19th, and most of the camps are starting in May. So I think a lot of school districts will go ahead and encourage students to plan to come, even if they don’t know their test results yet. That’s not necessarily bad. But it would be nice if we had some time to figure this out.

It’s one thing to provide learning interventions like summer camps, but they also need to be effective. What’s the best way to do that?

First, I want to emphasize that our organization likes and supports the parts of the law that add these supports for our students. We like the summer programs and tutoring and additional learning opportunities. Our state needs to continue doing this.

The best way to make them effective is to have your most effective teachers in there. So for this summer, district leaders are trying to figure out how to get their most effective teachers to extend 200 days of instruction to 220 or 240 days. That’s a challenge.

Is there any collateral damage as we try to help students catch up from pandemic disruptions?

I worry that we’re at risk of hurting our best teachers at a time when we’re looking for ways to retain them. There’s nothing more important in education for a student than a high-quality teacher. The best teachers produce the best results. But we can’t keep pushing more and more on teachers without them reaching a breaking point.

What else should we know as district leaders try to plan for more third graders participating in summer learning programs?

For school system leaders, the amount of money they thought they’d be getting for summer school programs is lower than they were anticipating. They’re also trying to figure out the budgeting process under TISA [the state’s new student funding formula that stands for Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement], which starts with the new school year. It’s a lot of big things happening at once.

This year’s TCAP testing window runs from April 17 to May 5. You can learn more about the testing program on the state education department’s website.

You can track the bills to revise the retention law on the General Assembly’s website.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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