Memphis 3rd graders improved in reading from 2nd grade, but thousands could still be held back

Two elementary students, shown from behind, sit in a classroom with a white teacher.

Early state test results show Memphis third graders improved in reading this year, and more students in the cohort are mastering state reading goals. 

But about three-quarters of third graders in Memphis-Shelby County Schools are still not meeting expectations, which means they could face more tests, tutoring, and summer school this year. Unless they hit certain marks along the way, they could be held back

That’s because of the new reading retention law that took effect across Tennessee for this year’s third-graders, bringing the high stakes of standardized testing felt by school districts and teachers down to the student level. 

The process won’t be totally unfamiliar to the students and families in Memphis-Shelby County Schools. The district briefly had its own retention policy for struggling readers, focused on second graders. That policy, suspended in August, looked at a dozen test scores from throughout the year to determine whether students needed to be held back. Last year, most second graders were required to attend summer school to be able to advance to third grade.

District officials said this year’s preliminary results pointed to progress, as well as the need for continued interventions.

“We have to move further faster, but because of their resilience and our interventions, the class of 2032 is making gains,” interim Superintendent Toni Williams wrote of the district’s third graders in an email to board members sharing the early scores. Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the email.

According to the preliminary results, 76% of students in that class, or about 6,500, fell below the state’s reading expectations.

“You’re going to be receiving, as third grade parents, a lot of communication,” said Shawn Page, the district’s chief of academic operations and school support. “So what we’ve got to make sure is that your address is correct, your phone number is correct, your email is correct.”

Not all those students will need to go to summer school or face retention, since some will qualify for exemptions. 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.

“Every case has to be looked at individually,” said Shawn Page, the district’s chief of academic operations and school support. “It’s not just one size fits all.”

Academic officials said Wednesday that the district had yet to calculate all of its exemptions, but expected them to be done this week, adding that families had been informed about the exemptions earlier this school year.

“It’s a tedious process that has to be done at the school level,” said Bill White, the district’s director of planning and accountability.   

Williams praised the gains for this year’s third graders, who were kindergarteners when the pandemic began and who spent first grade learning online from home. When these students were in second grade, just 16.5% scored as proficient on state reading tests. This year, 23.6% did. 

But comparing this year’s third graders to last year’s third graders, the scores showed virtually no improvement, and most students scored “below proficient,” the lowest of the four performance categories.

Across Tennessee, about 40% of third graders scored proficient in reading, according to the preliminary data released by the state on Monday.

What comes next? Retests and new results.

MSCS schools sent letters home with third graders Monday and Tuesday, notifying families whether their students scored proficient or not. For students who were below the threshold, the last days of the school year this week will include a retest on the computer. 

Students who have to take the retest “didn’t do anything wrong,” Jaron Carson, the chief academic officer for the district, said Tuesday. Rather, he said, the state is “excluding what the child has done the entire school year.” 

Families will receive new communication after the testing do-over, and the district expects to have these scores by May 29. Instead of sending report cards home with students at the end of the school year, the district is mailing them home on Friday, June 2. 

“You’re going to be receiving, as third grade parents, a lot of communication,” Page said. “So what we’ve got to make sure is that your address is correct, your phone number is correct, your email is correct.” 

Students who scored proficient on the retest can move on to fourth grade as usual. 

For those who didn’t, the next steps depend on whether they scored “below” or “approaching” proficiency. 

Students who scored “below” have to go to summer school, with a 90% attendance rate, meaning they can’t miss more than two days of the four-week program. Then, they have to participate in tutoring throughout fourth grade. If they don’t meet the new requirements, they have to repeat the third grade. 

Students who scored “approaching” have a different set of options. They can appeal the scores, academic officials explained Tuesday, to bypass the retention requirements. Students can be eligible for appeals for two reasons: if they scored a 40% on the district’s spring iReady test, or, if they experienced “extenuating circumstances” during testing, like a death in the family, illness, or housing instability, White explained.

“By submitting an appeal form,” the district says on its website, “a family will waive a student’s right to receive free tutoring and/or summer school programming to support their academic success.”

White clarified Wednesday that if the state denies a family’s appeal, the student will still have the chance to participate in tutoring throughout fourth grade.

Students who don’t seek appeals have to decide between participating in tutoring throughout fourth grade or attending the summer learning academy. In order to move on to fourth grade after summer school alone, students have to meet the 90% attendance rate, and take a test showing improvement of 5 percentage points compared with an earlier test.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at

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