Some Tennessee fourth graders have to meet individualized ‘adequate growth’ measure or risk retention

A row of students working on school work at desks in a classroom.
For some Tennessee fourth graders, the threat of retention has followed them from third grade. They'll have to score proficient on state testing this spring, or reach a new "adequate growth" metric in order to advance to fifth grade. (Fat Camera / Getty Images)

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Thousands of Tennessee fourth graders will have to show during state testing this spring that they’ve made progress toward becoming better readers in order to move to the fifth grade, according to an “adequate growth” policy measure approved by the Tennessee board of education Friday.

But continued pushback against Tennessee’s 2021 reading law could prompt new advocacy and recommendations for changing it. Some board members said they would support lawmakers revisiting key pieces of the legislation meant to help struggling readers.

Their deliberations Friday suggested many members made their votes so that school districts and families could plan for what is coming, and not because they support the required growth measure in the law, which is the only pathway thousands of students may have to advance to fifth grade.

“Clarity is better than ambiguity,” said board member Nate Morrow, an education administrator.

Last year’s third graders were the first to face the threat of retention since the law took effect. While 60% of students were marked at-risk because of their scores on the state’s English and language arts subject test, just 1% of third graders were ultimately retained, according to state data.

About 15% of students advanced to fourth grade with the expectation that interventions like summer school or tutoring would help boost their reading skills. Retention in fourth grade will be unavoidable for these students, however, if they don’t score proficient on the test or meet their individualized “adequate growth” testing metric approved Friday by the state board.

David Laird, assistant commissioner of assessment and accountability at the Tennessee Department of Education, presented the proposed calculation for determining a student’s growth on the TCAP test. While the calculation is much more complex than the straightforward growth measure required for some third graders, it is individualized to each student, he explained.

The calculation looks at where a student was in third grade and makes a determination of how far that student has to go to reach proficiency during their public education, a metric that is “objectively a high bar … in Tennessee,” Laird said. He said recent tweaks to the calculation include consideration for retake exams and, for parts of the calculation, students’ scores in other subject areas. Department officials plan to provide districts with these growth projections for each student by the end of the month. (Read the specific calculation in part 7 of the policy.)

Laird said, “In all the different places we could have put the line for adequate growth, what does that actually help us understand in terms of kids actually becoming proficient at some point in time in the future?”

What remains to be seen, he said, is how effective the high dosage tutoring interventions have been for this student group.

Some board members voiced support for a set of resolutions board member Ryan Holt said he plans to bring to the board’s next special meeting in March. Holt, appointed in 2022, encouraged the board to exercise its advisory capacity and propose to the General Assembly a re-evaluation of the literacy law and to call on lawmakers to create more pathways for students to advance to the next grade with reading supports rather than be retained.

Krissi McInturff, a state board member who has been a fourth grade teacher, criticized the law’s lack of continued supports for fourth graders who still aren’t meeting Tennessee’s benchmarks and said she hoped lawmakers would consider changes.

“I believe up until the fourth grade growth component, they have done an amazing job getting students the support they need,” McInturff said. Tennessee third graders, for instance, can avoid retention by enrolling in summer school or tutoring. “But unless there is a pathway for fourth graders to move to fifth grade, this will be in all aspects a retention law.”

The Tennessee State Board of Education will hold a special meeting on March 4. Find the full meeting schedule and agenda information on the board’s website.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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