More Tennessee 3rd graders tested proficient in reading this year, but 60% face risk of retention

A student fills out her reading log.
A higher literacy rate is the goal of a 2021 Tennessee law that puts this year’s class of third graders at risk of being held back if they don’t test as proficient readers, or don’t take advantage of state-funded learning intervention programs. (Tajuana Cheshier / Chalkbeat)

Tennessee’s third-grade reading proficiency rate jumped by more than 4 percentage points to 40% on this year’s state tests. 

But that means up to 60% of its third graders could be at risk of being held back under the state’s tough new retention law.

The results, based on preliminary scores, showed some level of improvement in all four of the state’s reading performance categories. The percentage of third graders who scored as advanced readers, the state’s top performance category, rose 3 percentage points to 13%, the largest figure in over a decade.

Tennessee released the statewide data Monday as families began receiving news about whether their third graders scored well enough on spring tests to move on to fourth grade.

While the state won’t release the final scores until this summer, the preliminary scores offer the first statewide glimpse at the effects of a controversial 2021 law passed in an effort to stem pandemic learning loss and boost Tennessee’s long-lagging scores for reading.

Gov. Bill Lee, who championed the 2021 law, called the gains “historic.”

And Penny Schwinn, the state’s outgoing education commissioner, pointed to Tennessee’s new investments and strategies for literacy, including an array of programs to train teachers on phonics-based reading instruction.

“While we still have a long way to go before we reach the goals laid out in legislation,” Schwinn said, “I appreciate the ongoing efforts of Tennessee schools as they implement summer and tutoring programs to provide students not yet on grade level with the supports they need to thrive.”

Scores set students on varying pathways to promotion

Tennessee has about 74,000 third graders. The early data showed 35% scored as “approaching” proficiency, down 1 percentage point from last year; and 25% scored “below” proficiency, down by 3 percentage points last year in the state’s bottom category. Another 27% were deemed to have met the state’s threshold for reading, up 2 percentage points from last year.

Those who weren’t deemed proficient readers may retake the test this week to try to improve their score, or may have to attend learning camps this summer or tutoring sessions this fall to be eligible to advance to fourth grade.

But the state’s numbers do not factor in students who are automatically exempt under the law. Those include third graders with a disability or suspected disability that affects reading; students who have been previously retained; and English language learners with less than two years of instruction in English language arts.

“Exemption decisions will be dealt with at the local level, in compliance with the law,” said Brian Blackley, a state education department spokesman.

District officials spent the weekend analyzing preliminary scores that the department shared with school leaders late Friday afternoon.

Knox County Schools was among the first school systems to report district-level results, with more than a third of its third graders at risk of retention. The district shared scores with families on Friday night and gave them until Sunday to sign up their child to retest this week. More than 1,200 Knox County third graders retook the test on Monday, said spokeswoman Carly Harrington.

About 38% of Nashville students face possible retention based on an analysis of performance and exemptions by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Chattanooga-based Hamilton County Schools reported that more than one-fifth of its third graders either did not score proficient in reading, or did not meet the state’s exemption criteria. “We are in the process of notifying families right now,” spokesman Steve Doremus said Monday.

In Rutherford County Schools, a large suburban district south of Nashville, about 30% of third graders may have to satisfy additional learning requirements to be eligible to advance to fourth grade. 

School officials in Memphis did not immediately answer Chalkbeat’s questions about third-grade performance.

“We’re working to support the families of our third-grade students over the next few days as they prepare for retests, appeals, our MSCS Summer Learning Academy, and end-of-year celebrations,” Memphis-Shelby County Schools said in a statement.

In releasing statewide data on Monday, the department reversed course from its stance last week.

Historically, the state has not publicly released data from preliminary student-level scores, which are protected by federal confidentiality laws. Blackley said Friday that would continue to be the case. On Monday, however, he said the public release of some statewide results was an attempt to increase transparency because of the high stakes for third graders.

“We understand there’s a lot of interest,” he said, “so we wanted to give a comprehensive view of third-grade data for English language arts as soon as possible.”

Critics of retention law step up their criticisms

This year’s third graders were the youngest students affected by school disruptions during the pandemic. Their kindergarten year was shortened by three months when Gov. Bill Lee urged public school officials to close their buildings in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Lee later called the legislature in for a special 2021 session to address ongoing learning disruptions. Lawmakers authorized the creation of summer programs and tutoring during the school year for elementary and middle school grades, while also approving new reading proficiency requirements for third graders to advance, beginning this school year.

The resulting state-funded learning interventions have proven popular, but the retention policy has received widespread criticism.

It’s “worth remembering this broken 3rd grade retention policy was rushed into law during a 4-day special session without any input from educators or families,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro tweeted over the weekend.

The Nashville Democrat questioned the adequacy of the state’s financial investment in education, its interpretation of scores from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, and the law’s focus on third graders.

“Maybe, just maybe, our efforts should focus on instruction & interventions in K-2 (if not earlier),” Yarbro wrote.

In Memphis, Sen. Raumesh Akbari said the possibility of holding back thousands of third graders based on a single test score was “manufactured chaos.”

“There are so many student interventions we could be supporting to improve reading comprehension. High-stakes testing, with the threat of failing third grade, is not one of them,” said Akbari, who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Many school officials also question whether TCAP is the best measure of a child’s ability to read.

“The promotion requirements around one TCAP data point don’t portray simple ‘reading ability,’” Rutherford County Schools Superintendent James Sullivan said in a statement. 

“Instead,” he said, “the TCAP third grade English Language Arts assessment is a measure of a student’s performance on all Tennessee Academic ELA Standards including the ability to interact, decipher, comprehend, and analyze comprehensive text.”

Adrienne Battle, director of schools in Nashville, said her district did not agree with the law’s retention policy, but is working with its families to navigate the law’s impacts.

“It is important for children, parents, and the community to understand that if a student didn’t score proficient on this one test, it does not mean they failed, that they cannot read, or that they are not making learning progress,” Battle said. “Tennessee has some of the highest standards in the nation for student expectations.”

Local pushback caused legislators to revisit the law during their most recent legislative session. Among other things, lawmakers widened criteria for determining which third graders are at risk of being held back, but the changes won’t take effect until next school year.

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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