Reading test scores go out today in Tennessee. The stakes are higher than ever for third graders.

A teacher leads young students in a reading exercise.
A teacher leads students in a reading exercise during a 2021 summer learning camp at Rutland Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Thousands of struggling third-grade readers are expected to participate in this year’s summer programs to avoid retention under a new law. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

The end of the school year — typically days of celebrations and send-offs — will be filled instead with more high-stakes testing and weighty decisions about summer school for thousands of third-grade students under Tennessee’s new learning and retention law.

On Friday, school districts are scheduled to receive preliminary scores from state tests given this spring, kicking off a busy few days of analysis and communication with parents about what those results mean.

Most families should have information by Monday or Tuesday about how their third grader performed. 

Students scoring as proficient readers will advance to the fourth grade, as expected. And third graders who scored below proficiency can retake a reading test next week to try for a better result. Students who still score below proficiency on the retest must enter learning intervention programs as soon as this summer or fall to help them catch up, or they can present their case to the state on why they should be exempted.

The dizzying pace was set in motion by a 2021 law that drew a line in the sand on reading proficiency beginning with this year’s class of third graders. Those students were kindergarteners when the pandemic hit and ushered in unprecedented disruptions to learning.

Memphis mom Charmeal Neely-Alexander says the state’s new third-grade policy is the latest example of how school has been tough from the start for her daughter, now 9: The pandemic interruptions began in kindergarten, and now there’s the pressure of high-stakes testing.

“I’ve never seen anything so daunting,” Neely-Alexander said of the consequences attached to this year’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP.

Students ‘approaching’ proficiency have two options

While the precise number of third graders at risk won’t be known until after Friday’s data dump, 64% of last year’s third graders — almost 46,000 students — would have been identified as eligible for retention had the new policy been in place for them, according to a recent state comptroller’s report. That number, however, does not factor in exemptions or appeals that are expected to significantly decrease the actual number of students at risk for retention this year. (For instance, students who have a disability or suspected disability that affects reading are exempt from the new policy.)

In short, the law says third graders who score as “approaching” reading proficiency have two options to advance to the fourth grade: They must either attend a summer learning camp and maintain a 90% attendance rate, then show adequate growth on a test administered at the end of the program; or they must take advantage of state-funded tutoring throughout the 2023-24 school year.

Third graders who score in the bottom category of readers known as “below” must participate in both intervention programs to get promoted to fourth grade.

Most districts are strongly urging students who either scored in the bottom two categories or missed the spring TCAPs due to illness to test again during the state’s window for retesting between May 22 and June 5. Officials with the state education department say their testing vendor will return new scores within 48 hours after those tests are submitted.

But the state’s largest district, Memphis-Shelby County Schools, is making the testing do-over mandatory for third graders at risk of retention.

“It’s another opportunity for the child to score proficient,” said Chief Academic Officer Jaron Carson.

“We’re going to make the most of the time we have,” added district spokeswoman Cathryn Stout, noting that the school year doesn’t end in Memphis until May 26.

Thousands register for summer learning programs

Meanwhile, because of the tight timeline at the end of the school year, administrators have been encouraging families to register their third graders for summer learning camps before they know the test results. Many districts are beginning those programs in early June.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools expects about 2,700 third graders to participate in summer learning academies hosted by 21 schools June 20 to July 19. That’s out of about 6,000 third graders in the school system’s district-run schools.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has 3,600-plus students — more than half of its third-grade class — signed up for its summer program that begins on June 1, while Knox County Schools has more than 1,500 of its 4,500 third graders registered for camps that start June 5. In Hamilton County, more than a third of its 3,300 third graders are signed up to participate, also beginning on June 5.

The numbers are expected to fluctuate significantly, however, in the next few weeks, depending on TCAP and retest results.

“We will keep registration open throughout the end of the school year to ensure every third-grade student who needs a seat has one,” said Sean Braisted, spokesman for Nashville’s district.

Flexibility is key to staffing this year’s summer camps

School leaders and teachers have been communicating with third-grade families throughout the school year about the new law and its significant implications for their students.

They’ve also been planning how to quickly scale up their summer programs for third graders, especially related to staffing, depending on how many students ultimately show up.

“We have to prioritize summer learning experiences for rising fourth graders because of the implications of law, and that has meant limiting the enrollment of other grade levels for the first time since these camps were offered,” said Erin Phillips, executive director of learning and literacy for Knox County Schools.

“That’s a challenge,” she continued, “because we want to do what’s best for every student. But we know we have to prioritize that rising fourth-grade group. We have to have enough staff.”

For Memphis-Shelby County Schools, staffing is already in place to accommodate an influx of third graders, says Stout, thanks in part to a $2,000 bonus being paid to those teachers, in addition to a $31-an-hour wage.

“We feel confident that we’ll be fully staffed,” she said. “It’s important to remember that 1 in 4 MSCS students attended some type of summer program with us last summer, so it’s given us a lot of experience and served almost as a preview of what to expect this year.”

Breckan Duckworth, who oversees summer programming for Hamilton County Schools, said many teachers have become accustomed to the extra pay after working in state-mandated summer programs the last three years.

“For the first time, we’ve not had any problem with staffing summer programs,” Duckworth said. “We’ve actually had to turn away a few classified staff and certified teachers because we don’t have a spot for them.”

Interventions are disruptive, but designed to help

For Neely-Alexander, the Memphis mom, all of the classroom focus on TCAP testing felt “rushed” this year. And she’s bothered that the summer camp could be mandatory. But she still views the learning interventions as a win-win for her daughter, who will spend the summer with other kids, since it will also provide her family with free summer child care.

Regardless of her daughter’s scores, “she’s going to go anyway to the summer learning academy,” Neely-Alexander said.

As for school leaders, their messaging about required interventions has focused on extra opportunities to support struggling readers, not judging them for needing extra support.

“We know that for some families, this will interrupt their summer plans and there’s a mix of emotions involved,” said Stout, with the Memphis district. “But we also know that 1 in 7 people in Shelby County struggles with literacy. I hope that, as a community, we really rally around these students.”

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

Laura Testino contributed to this report from Memphis. Contact her at ltestino@chalkbeat.org.

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