Tennessee 4th graders await test scores — and outcome of debate on policies that could hold back thousands

A bookshelf full of books line a wall with windows covered in yellow and blue paper above the bookshelf. There is a sign that says "READ" above the bookshelf.
Early literacy was a focus of a reading, intervention, and retention law passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2021. Now lawmakers are revisiting the law over its retention provisions. (Elaine Cromie/Chalbkeat)

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Carly Fair, who has three children in Tennessee public schools, took on the role of an unpaid mom-lobbyist at the state Capitol this year on behalf of families like hers who have a fourth-grade child at risk of being held back under a 2021 reading law.

The law was well intended, she believes: If children are behind on their reading skills in grades three and four, they need tutoring and individualized attention to help them catch up.

But the law also says students in those critical early years may have to repeat a grade if they don’t score as proficient in English language arts on their annual state test, or show adequate growth as defined by the state.

“It feels like we’ve been in a pressure cooker for two years,” said Fair, whose daughter was one correct answer short of automatic promotion on last year’s state tests known as the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.

“It was a real blow to her self-confidence,” Fair recalls about her daughter, then 8. “There were a lot of tears.”

Many third graders like Fair’s were able to advance to fourth grade last fall by attending a summer learning camp or receiving tutoring this school year.

But now, their families are waiting anxiously for the results of this spring’s TCAP assessment. If those students don’t demonstrate enough improvement, the law requires them to be held back — without receiving more tutoring or extra learning supports next year.

They’re also watching to see if lawmakers pass legislation to address what they believe are shortcomings in the statute — and outright missteps when it comes to thousands of struggling readers who took advantage of interventions to get promoted.

“The shocking part to me was they get no services, they get no tutoring, they get nothing, other than just retained in fourth grade,” Sen. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican, told lawmakers earlier this year.

White is co-sponsoring legislation to revise the law to give fourth-grade parents a bigger say about retention decisions, and to provide additional learning services for students whose reading skills continue to lag.

She was among legislators who voted for the law in 2021 during a weeklong special session called by Gov. Bill Lee to address pandemic-related disruptions to schooling. The statute, which Lee pushed for, created summer learning camps and tutoring programs that have been popular with most families.

But Tennessee’s new retention policies, which started with last year’s class of third graders, have been controversial.

About 900 third-graders, or 1.2% from that class who took TCAPs, were retained last year. That’s significantly less than earlier projections after many families took advantage of intervention options and an appeals process.

This year, the state education department projects about 6,000 fourth graders could be retained — without the promise of additional supports.

That, Fair says, seems contrary to the law’s intent, which is to identify struggling readers, then to give them the tools they need to improve.

“TCAPs should be used as an alert system to assemble a team to determine where a student is,” she said, “and then to develop a plan to get them where they need to be.”

Sponsors of this year’s revision bill seem to agree.

Details stand in the way of an agreement

The Senate and House disagree about some specifics and appear to be headed toward a conference committee to try to negotiate a compromise before the legislature adjourns this week.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Gary Hicks of Rogersville, allows schools to take into account both TCAP scores and the results of a local benchmark test when determining whether a student is improving enough. If they aren’t, the student’s parent or guardian must meet with the teacher and principal to discuss whether it’s in the child’s best interest to be promoted or held back. If advancing, the student must take advantage of a summer learning program or tutoring during the fifth grade.

The Senate bill, sponsored by White, uses only TCAP results to determine whether the student is improving enough. While it allows parents and educators to jointly decide whether a student can be promoted, it requires tutoring throughout fifth grade, not summer learning, as the required intervention. And it puts the policy in place for only two years.

“We don’t want to come back and go through this all over again in two years,” Hicks, the House co-sponsor, told Chalkbeat after his chamber refused to concur with the Senate version.

But Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican, likes the idea of putting a time limit on the changes. He was against relaxing the retention policy in the first place.

“We drew a line in the sand a few years ago,” Lundberg said, “and it’s a good line.”

Policy decisions trickle down to students

For Fair, whose child attends an elementary school in Nashville, following legislative debates about the issue has been a learning process. Last year, she began attending committee meetings at the state Capitol. Over the months, she’s met with lawmakers, members of the State Board of Education, and even representatives of the governor to talk about her family’s experience.

While officials have been accessible, “the disconnect from reality and how this affects people can happen pretty quickly,” she said.

Fair continued: “The emotional and relational toll that this can have 9- and 10-year-olds is pretty great. I don’t know if high schoolers experience this much pressure with their ACT and SAT tests.”

For now, she and other parents of fourth graders are watching for legislative developments and waiting for TCAP scores. Fair’s daughter took her assessment last week.

“She walked into it a little nervous, but brave,” said Fair. “I’m so proud of her.”

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

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