Changes to Tennessee’s 4th-grade reading law pass after compromise on retention policy

Two people stand in front of Tennessee state seal and two flags.
Rep. Gary Hicks and Sen. Dawn White, who co-sponsored a bill to revise Tennessee's 2021 reading and retention law, confer before House and Senate negotiators reach a compromise on their legislation on April 25, 2024. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

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Parents of Tennessee fourth graders would have input on whether their children get held back because of low reading test scores, under compromise legislation that’s headed to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk.

The legislation also provides additional tutoring to students who advance to the fifth grade, even if they didn’t test as proficient readers or show adequate improvement in grades three and four.

The Senate and House agreed on the provisions Thursday to address longstanding concerns about Lee’s 2021 reading and retention law, which threatens to hold back an estimated 6,000 struggling fourth-grade readers.

Under the current law, which Lee proposed, fourth graders who don’t score well enough on state tests have to repeat fourth grade, and receive no additional learning supports and resources during that year. But legislators said that wasn’t their intent when they voted to strengthen retention requirements for third- and fourth-graders during a special session to deal with disruptions to schooling from the pandemic.

The governor signaled later that he will sign the bill.

The legislature’s vote came on the final day of a 2024 legislative session that began in January — and nearly two weeks after students began testing under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, which the state uses to determine reading proficiency.

Educators and families called the timing of the bill’s passage ironic, given that lawmakers have received pushback about the law for several years.

“They could have saved many fourth-grade students and their parents a whole lot of anxiety if they’d passed this earlier,” said Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach for Grainger County Schools, near Knoxville.

Different versions of the bill passed last week out of the House and Senate. When neither side backed down, they turned to negotiators to reach a compromise.

Both chambers were in agreement about directing the child’s parent or guardian to meet with the teacher and principal to discuss whether it’s in the child’s best interest to be promoted or held back. But on Thursday, negotiators added that the parent won’t make the final call. The majority will rule.

The final bill also sets TCAP scores as the only promotion criteria, and tutoring as the only required intervention for advancing.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Gary Hicks of Rogersville, would have let schools take into account the results of a local benchmark test too. And it would have allowed families to choose between participating in a summer learning program or tutoring in fifth grade if promoted.

But in a concession, the Senate, where the bill was sponsored by Dawn White of Murfreesboro, agreed to drop its insistence that the changes take place for only two years. That provision likely would have required lawmakers to revisit the law in 2026.

This is not the first time the legislature has revised the law.

Last year, when the statute’s retention provision kicked in for third graders, lawmakers widened criteria to include both TCAP and benchmark test results to determine which third graders are at risk of being held back.

Third grade is considered a critical year for reading because literacy is the basis for all subsequent learning.

But there’s a growing consensus among Tennessee policymakers that third grade is too late to identify and help struggling readers.

Last month, in a rare action, the state Board of Education approved a resolution asking the legislature to refocus the state’s intervention efforts on grades as early as kindergarten.

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Lee signaling he’ll sign the bill.

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