Governor signs Tennessee law letting parents, educators make final 4th-grade retention decisions

Two parents sit next to each other in front of a teacher at a small desk in a classroom.
Under a newly signed Tennessee law, parents and teachers of fourth graders, as well as the school principal, will have input on whether the student gets held back because of low reading scores. (Getty Images)

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Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation Tuesday to let each fourth grader’s parents, teacher, and principal decide collectively whether a student should be held back due to a second straight year of low reading scores, even after a year of tutoring.

The Tennessee law also requires more tutoring for public school students who advance to the fifth grade but didn’t test as proficient readers or show adequate growth by the end of fourth grade toward goals that are individualized for each student.

The changes will ease anxiety, and potentially provide extra resources, for thousands of students who are on the verge of completing fourth grade but at risk of being held back due to their performance this spring on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.

And it comes as the state education department began releasing preliminary test score data to districts this week to help families of third and fourth graders know where their students stand.

“It’s definitely a relief,” said Nashville mom Carly Fair, after the bill was signed into law. Her daughter was one correct answer short of automatic promotion to the fourth grade on last year’s TCAP.

“Testing tells us something, but it doesn’t tell us everything,” she continued. “I’m thankful parents are now invited to the table to decide with their child’s teacher and principal what is best for each individual student.”

Under Tennessee’s previous reading and retention law signed by Lee in 2021, state officials projected about 6,000 students were at risk of having to repeat fourth grade next school year, with no additional learning supports planned for them. Those students had opted last year for yearlong tutoring in the fourth grade to avoid being retained in third grade.

But on the last day of the 2024 legislative session, lawmakers voted to revise retention policies for fourth graders who continue to pull low scores in English language arts on their TCAPs. They directed the student’s parents 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. Majority will rule.

The governor, who has supported a more aggressive retention stance, did not comment as he signed the law. But earlier this month, Lee acknowledged tensions about relaxing the state’s literacy requirements for promotion.

“What’s most important to me is we enact legislation that allows for the success of children,” he told reporters on May 6. “One of the worst things that we can do for that child is to push them into the fourth and fifth grade if they can’t read. It almost ensures their failure. We’re trying to ensure success for children.”

Lee signed the highly anticipated law nearly two weeks after lawmakers sent him the bill on May 10 — and just one day before it was set to become law without his signature. By contrast, the governor signed a controversial bill to let some public school employees carry handguns on the same day he received that legislation on April 26, which was the day after the legislature adjourned.

The timing for the latest signing was an administrative matter, according to his spokesperson.

“The governor reads every bill that reaches his desk, and there are a lot to get through at this time of year,” said Elizabeth Lane Johnson, his press secretary.

It’s the second straight year Lee has signed off on revisions to the 2021 reading law, which authorized new summer school and after-school tutoring programs to help students catch up from the pandemic, while also strengthening retention policies for the two pivotal early grades.

Last year, when the statute’s tougher retention provision kicked in for third graders, lawmakers widened the promotion criteria to include both TCAP and benchmark test results, and ordered the creation of rules for appealing retention decisions.

Ultimately, only about 900 third graders, or 1.2% were retained in 2023 — not significantly more than in an average school year — after many families took advantage of the state’s intervention and appeals processes or received an automatic exemption, such as for students who have a disability or suspected disability that affects reading.

Now that the policy is officially revised for fourth graders, school and classroom leaders can relay promotion information to parents with more certainty, said Gary Lilly, executive director of the state superintendents organization.

“I think people are relieved that there is a path forward for so many fourth graders,” Lilly said, “and the fact it gives teachers, parents, and principals a voice in the process to determine what is best for each student.”

He continued: “I give a lot of credit to parents who reached out directly to legislators and school leaders about the anxiety their families were experiencing. It helped them to understand that this was a major issue for a lot of Tennesseans, just a year after they had experienced anxiety over the same law as it relates to third graders.”

Last week, in anticipation of Lee signing the law, the state education department published a tool to help families of third and fourth graders understand various pathways for promotion.

“As districts and schools begin to have essential conversations with families of students who are not yet proficient, we will continue to provide resources and supports so they can make informed decisions about their student’s education,” Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds said in a statement.

For students completing fourth grade who are still at risk of retention based on their preliminary scores, the state is to release its calculations by July 1 on whether they showed enough improvement to advance. If not, the parent or guardian must meet with their child’s teacher and principal to make that call. But many educators and parents have already been meeting to discuss those options and make plans.

The next few weeks will be especially busy for third-grade families and teachers.

Under Tennessee’s promotion timeline, the state was scheduled to report preliminary scores for third graders to districts by May 20 so they can begin communicating and planning with families about whether students will be automatically promoted to fourth grade or, depending on their scores, what their promotion options are.

Third graders scoring below proficiency in English language arts can retake their TCAPs between May 22 and 31. A parent, guardian, or authorized educator of a student who scored just below proficiency can submit an appeal to the education department between May 28 and June 28 based on certain conditions.

Additionally, third graders who scored “approaching expectations” on their TCAPs can be promoted if they scored at or above the 50th percentile on a separate reading screening test, as long as they also get tutoring throughout the fourth grade.

You can find more information about retention and promotion policies for third and fourth graders on the state education department’s website.

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a parent’s comment.

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