Tennessee’s reading law gets pushback again as thousands of students could repeat fourth grade

A non-identifiable young student sits on the floor reading a book next to a stack of books.
Under a 2021 Tennessee law, at least 5,000 fourth graders are projected to be at risk of being retained this year based on this spring's state test results for English language arts. (Catherine McQueen / Getty Images)

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Tennessee’s comprehensive pandemic-era literacy law, which last year provided several interventions to help struggling third grade readers advance to the fourth grade, offers no such escape hatches for those same students to avoid retention this year if they don’t show “adequate growth” under the 2021 law.

Now, as the State Board of Education prepares to vote Friday on what constitutes enough improvement for fourth graders who are at risk, state lawmakers are getting pushback from families whose students could be held back if they score poorly on state tests this spring, even after taking advantage of state-funded tutoring and summer learning programs.

At least 5,000 students are projected to fall in that category, according to the state education department. But some estimates put that number higher.

“I think we’re going to put so much pressure on these kids that it’s going to be a real mess,” said Sen. Rusty Crowe during a legislative hearing Wednesday.

The Johnson City Republican wants to revise the 2021 law so that students and parents who are engaged with their teachers in the learning process don’t get punished. He and Rep. Chris Hurt, a Halls Republican, have introduced legislation to let a struggling fourth grade reader’s teacher, principal, and parents decide collaboratively whether to retain the student based on multiple measures, not just state test results for English language arts under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

It’s uncertain whether the General Assembly is willing to revise the law again, especially after making several tweaks last year to widen the criteria for holding back third graders.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg repeatedly has said Gov. Bill Lee’s literacy law sets reasonable and appropriate expectations in the state’s long drive to improve reading proficiency.

“We’ve moved the needle from 30% to 40% proficiency [for third graders], but 40% still isn’t acceptable,” the Bristol Republican said at a January legislative hearing.

State board is required to define ‘adequate growth’

The State Board of Education appears poised to approve proposed policy changes that include a definition of “adequate growth” for fourth graders to get promoted if they don’t score as proficient readers this spring.

Chairman Robert Eby told lawmakers this week that he expects a full discussion Friday — but that members ultimately will follow the law, which directs the board to define adequate growth.

The proposed definition is tailored to each student, based on testing measurements that the state already uses to predict the probability that a student can become proficient by the eighth grade, when they take their last TCAP tests.

“It is complicated; it is not something that is easy to explain,” said Sara Morrison, executive director of the state board, during testimony before the Senate Education Committee.

“We do feel like it is statistically robust and makes sense,” she added. “But that doesn’t make it easy, and it doesn’t make it an easy decision for our board.”

Board members have received a lot of public feedback about the matter, including a letter this week from Erin O’Hara Block, a Nashville school board member who worked as Tennessee’s assistant commissioner for data and research in former Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.

Block called the proposed calculations for measuring adequate growth “confusing,” and suggested that the real problem lies with the law itself.

“Instead of passing this revision of policy, I suggest that your board defer until a later date with a request that the legislature remove this portion of the law based on a lack of clear, transparent, viable, and implementable options,” she wrote.

In an interview Thursday with Chalkbeat, Block said state test scores are being misused because of the law. TCAP results were intended for diagnostic purposes, she said, not for high-stakes decisions such as holding a child back a year at school.

“This law was written quickly in the midst of a global pandemic and passed in a special legislative session. So why aren’t we revisiting it?” she asked.

Legislature drew a line in the sand

The law passed in 2021 during a weeklong session called by the governor to address pandemic-related learning disruptions. The same law created summer learning recovery camps that began that year and tutoring programs that started in 2022.

The interventions have proven popular to help students catch up, but the law’s retention provision — which began with last year’s class of third-graders — has been controversial.

Still, due to the intervention options and an appeals process that many families took advantage of, only about 900 third graders, or 1.2% from that class who took the test, were retained because of their reading scores.

The number of fourth graders expected to be retained this year will be significantly higher, officials say, based on the current law.

Research is mixed about whether holding students back helps or hurts them. Supporters say it spurs additional supports that struggling readers desperately need. Critics worry that retention falls disproportionately on student groups who are already marginalized, such as those who are of color or are economically disadvantaged.

During a workshop on Thursday, several State Board members questioned whether the law is even targeting the right age group — and Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds agreed. Intervention and retention policies aimed at kindergarten and first and second grades would be more effective, she said, adding that “third grade is too late.”

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

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