Tennessee reading law’s retention policies should start as early as kindergarten, state board says

Six little children sit attentively on a rug in a classroom, looking at a book an adult facing them is showing.
Tennessee's 2021 reading intervention and retention law targets students in grades 3 and 4, but the state's top education policy board wants the policy focus to shift to younger grades. (Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

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Tennessee’s top education policy board is urging Gov. Bill Lee and state lawmakers to refocus efforts to identify and help struggling readers on students in lower grades — as early as kindergarten — rather than waiting until third or fourth grade to intervene.

In a rare action, the state Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution Monday asking elected officials to revisit the state’s 2021 literacy law, which targeted third and fourth graders and strengthened retention rules for students who score poorly on state tests.

Over the past three years, the board has been working through the details and challenges of implementing the controversial law, which passed during a special legislative session called by the governor to address pandemic-related learning disruptions.

The law created popular summer learning camps and tutoring programs. It also included less popular provisions increasing the likelihood that third and fourth graders could be held back a grade eventually if they don’t perform well enough in English language arts under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.

Third grade, when Tennessee begins to give its students TCAP tests, is a critical year for reading proficiency, because literacy is considered key to all later learning.

The board’s request for the state to reconsider the law’s retention provision is based in part on new tools that Tennessee teachers are using to identify reading problems before the third grade.

“Retaining students in grades K-3 rather than grades 3-4 will ensure that students who are in the most need of additional reading support will have access to foundational literacy skills instruction at a critical point in their foundational literacy development should they be retained,” the resolution reads.

While years of research shows the overall costs and benefits of retaining students are unclear, the general consensus among researchers and educators is that the earlier a struggling student is retained, the better the outcomes for that student.

“Third grade is too late,” Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds told the board last month when members asked whether Tennessee’s reading law is targeting the right age group.

Additionally, Tennessee students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade now take three tests annually to screen them for potential reading challenges. Data from those tests wasn’t available when the 2021 law passed, but it could be used now to trigger key supports, interventions, and retention decisions earlier in a student’s academic career, the resolution says.

Ryan Holt, who represents Nashville on the board and wrote the resolution, said the law had a good intent but needs a “course correction.”

Executive Director Sara Morrison agreed. “It pushes us in the right direction as a state to look at those earlier grades and use data responsibly to make decisions earlier than third grade, but allows for that backstop to remain in third grade where we have that consistent TCAP measure,” she said.

Thousands of third graders were at risk of being held back last year because of their TCAP scores, but ultimately only about 900 third graders, or 1.2% were retained — not significantly more than in an average school year — thanks to intervention options and an appeals process that many families took advantage of.

The law also requires this year’s fourth graders to be held back if they don’t score as proficient, or show “adequate growth,” on their TCAPs.

Officials are projecting that the fourth grade retention number will be significantly higher than the third-grade rate, because the law allows for fewer exemptions for those students.

Just weeks ago, the state board approved a complex formula for what constitutes enough improvement for fourth graders — but not before several members questioned whether the law is targeting the right age group.

“I just want to encourage us to keep moving in the direction of working with teachers who would say the earlier, the better. Let’s not wait,” said Larry Jensen, a board member from West Tennessee.

Board Chairman Robert Eby, from Oak Ridge, said the body’s decision Monday to send a message to elected officials falls in line with its duty to develop and maintain a master plan for K-12 public education.

“We don’t pass many resolutions,” Eby said. “I think it shows the importance we’re putting on this issue.”

Asked about the board’s resolution, a spokeswoman for the governor reiterated the law’s intent, supports, and impacts.

“Beginning in kindergarten, students have access to high-dosage tutoring and summer school programs that reinforce proven phonics-based instruction,” said Elizabeth Lane Johnson, Lee’s press secretary. “Parents and teachers can track their students’ progress through regular reading screening tests, so they can determine the right path forward based on the unique needs of each student.”

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

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