For Memphis 3rd graders, threat of retention has hovered since kindergarten

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With only a few days left in third grade, LaQuencher Sanders’ 8-year-old daughter, Kamryn, just wanted to be done with school.

She had been in the class of kindergartners who were sent home in March 2020 because of COVID. She was among the first-graders who had spent a year learning online as the pandemic raged. In second grade, her reading test scores got her flagged for retention under a new policy at Memphis-Shelby County Schools. To avoid being held back a grade, she had to attend summer school, and then tutoring throughout third grade.

This year, as the end of the year approached, she had a sense that her reading scores on the test she took in the spring may not be high enough for her to move on to fourth grade automatically. That meant that to avoid having to repeat the grade, she would likely face more summer school and another year of tutoring.

On the day her teacher was going to give her those scores, Kamryn arrived at school early, as usual. But at some point that morning, she walked out the front doors of her elementary school — and kept going. She walked a mile away, all by herself, before she stopped and asked for help. Police picked her up just before a major intersection and took her back to Kate Bond Elementary School. 

All of it was just too much, she later explained to her mom. 

“She told me that she was tired of school,” Sanders said.

Many third-graders across Tennessee found out in May that after a turbulent start to their education, they could be in for more testing, summer school, and tutoring, because they didn’t meet state requirements on a standardized reading test this spring. The interventions are dictated by a state law that took effect this year to improve literacy and deal with the legacy of learning loss during the pandemic. 

LaQuencher Sanders’ daughter, Kamryn, usually loves school. But the stress of the third grade reading retention law prompted her to walk out of class — and keep walking. (Courtesy LaQuencher Sanders)

Statewide, about 60% of third-graders did not meet the standard for proficiency. In MSCS alone, more than 6,000 students missed the mark

It was the second time that this same cohort of MSCS students faced the threat of being held back over their reading scores. The district briefly had its own retention policy aimed at improving lagging performance in reading and targeted at last year’s second graders. 

While the MSCS policy was based on a composite of 12 different scores, the new state law hinges on the results of a single test: the English language arts section of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. 

When those scores came out in May, some families were caught by surprise. Others, like Kamryn’s, knew what was coming — more school days, and less break time. 

But that didn’t make the reality any less difficult.

Local school boards opposed focus on a single test

Lauren Giovannetti was one of the surprised ones. Her 9-year-old son, Anders, recently got tested to join the district’s gifted-education program. He scored at or above grade level on four benchmark tests throughout the school year.

But on the TCAP test — the only one that matters for this year’s third graders under the retention law — he scored “approaching” proficiency, one step below proficient on the state’s four-level scale. 

To avoid being held back, students in that level have to attend summer school or tutoring, unless they do well enough on a retest, successfully appeal their result, or qualify for an exemption. (Students with reading disabilities and a limited time learning English are exempt, as are students who have been held back before.) 

Anders was sick and crying over the results, Giovannetti said. He went back to Grahamwood Elementary School to take the test again. By then, peers knew which students scored well enough to move on to fourth grade automatically, and which ones didn’t, Giovannetti explained, because the students who had to take the test again were pulled out of class. 

“I just don’t understand why this is the only factor that they’re looking at for something that’s such a big deal,” said Giovannetti. 

Local officials had expected the TCAP results, combined with the fresh threat of retention, to be jarring for some families. “Even third graders who are performing at grade level could be subject to retention,” school board members for MSCS and suburban districts wrote to lawmakers about the new legislation in 2021. Testing as proficient on the state test, they argued, is not the same as grade-level mastery.

They implored lawmakers to seek a “comprehensive assessment” of third graders’ performance, rather than using a single state test to flag students for retention, which they said could have “possible negative life-long effects.”

“It’s not appropriate to put this much pressure on a 9-year-old,” Giovannetti said. 

Families in Memphis and across the state have united over their frustrations with the law, and lawmakers responded by accepting some proposed amendments, including one that expands the criteria by one test for certain students. But the changes won’t take effect until next school year. 

Giovannetti’s son got the results of his retest on his last day of third grade. He was one correct answer shy of scoring “proficient” and heading straight to fourth grade.

Giovannetti submitted an appeal, based on Anders’ results from an earlier benchmark test. It was approved within days, she told Chalkbeat, leaving her to wonder why the earlier score couldn’t have been counted in the first place. 

“There’s something off here, and I don’t think it’s 6,000 kids,” she said. “I think we need to look into this test, and make sure it’s really measuring what we want it to measure.”

Students went through two years with threat of retention

MSCS officials say they have tried to convey to students that they are more than just a test score. But the state law makes clear that the one score on the TCAP may determine how these students will spend their summer, and possibly their next year in school. 

The district sought a more accurate assessment of a student’s reading capabilities by introducing its own retention policy for second graders. Other states were already implementing reading retention policies, and there was one on the books in Tennessee that allowed schools the option to retain students based on third grade reading scores. 

The board approved the policy in 2019, as the district was staring down a lofty literacy goal and stagnant reading scores. At the time, this year’s third graders were entering kindergarten, and school officials were stressing the importance of literacy as a gateway to advanced learning.

District officials considered delaying implementation of the policy because of the pandemic, but decided not to, on the basis that third grade would be too late to intervene. So the threat of retention trailed students into their second grade classrooms as they returned from a year of online school. 

Giovannetti recalls second grade being intense, as teachers prepared students for third grade. Her son made it through to third grade without having to attend summer school. This year, she said, the state’s retention law for third graders was “kind of all we heard about.”

The district’s retention policy doesn’t exist anymore. MSCS revoked it in August without much discussion. 

But by then, the learning setbacks caused by online schooling, which continued in MSCS well after other Tennessee districts resumed in-person school instruction, had already prompted Tennessee lawmakers to enact a statewide policy, but based on just the one test. So the retention threat followed these students into third grade. 

“We were ahead of the game,” Angela Whitelaw, then one of two MSCS acting superintendents, told board members in an August committee meeting. “But now we need to align all of our resources and all of our work along with the state.”

Facing more school, student ‘wanted to go home’

Sanders, Kamryn’s mother, said she’s been keeping up with parent meetings and all the online communication from school that her daughter brings home.

Even before the scores arrived, third grade teachers had been talking about retests, and some students, including Kamryn, had already been signed up for summer school, based on anticipated results.

The walkout incident was shocking, Sanders said, because her daughter has always seemed to love school. 

She had to attend summer school last year and tutoring throughout the year for reading. But that hadn’t stopped her from enjoying other subjects, like art and music. And in math, she helped her classmates learn their multiplication tables, her mom said. 

On that day, “she just said she wanted to go home,” Sanders said. 

In a statement about the girl’s experience, the district said counseling and other emotional supports are available to students, and that her school still had fun end-of-year activities. 

“Districtwide, we’re working hard to uplift and celebrate our third graders,” the district said, “because we know the state-mandated reading retention law has deeply affected these little learners.”

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