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No changes to Tenn. retention law for this year’s third graders

Parents, educators and community activists packed a March meeting of the K-12 subcommittee to ask for substantial changes to Tennessee's third grade retention law.
Alexis Marshall
Parents, educators and community activists packed a March meeting of the K-12 subcommittee to ask for substantial changes to Tennessee's third grade retention law.

Tennessee’s legislature has tweaked its law aimed at improving third grade literacy. But the changes won’t take effect until next school year, and even then, they’re far from an overhaul. That means this year’s third graders will face the consequences of a law that parents, teachers and school district officials have spent months fighting to change.

Many Tennessee third graders are in the middle of their end-of-year TCAP testing. Those who score less than proficient on the English Language Arts, or ELA, section will need to participate in intensive reading interventions or re-do the whole grade.

The law has been troubling Amanda Gillen’s daughter, Harper, who’s a third grader at A.L. Lotts Elementary in West Knoxville.

“A kid at that age, they’re embarrassed. They’re ashamed. They’re scared to death,” Gillen said. “She had a hard time focusing, because all she could think was, ‘Oh my god, what if I mess up? What if I mess up? What if I mess up? All my friends are going to go, you know, to fourth grade, and I’m not.’ And she’s a kid that makes good grades.”

Gillen preemptively signed her daughter up for a summer learning camp, since the deadline to enroll was a couple weeks ago. They won’t know her daughter’s test scores for weeks.

How the law works

Under current law, students who score “approaching” proficient must participate in summer learning camps or agree to a full school year of tutoring to avoid being held back. Students who score “below” proficient must do both if they want to move on to fourth grade.

The law does outline an option to re-take the TCAP. It also includes exceptions for students with disabilities that impact their ability to read, kids who’ve been held back before and for some English Language Learners. But throughout the session, many parents and educators said those exemptions were too narrow.

Many of the revisions they advocated for did not materialize in the final bill. As it is, the law exempts English Language Learners who’ve had less than two years of ELA instruction. But Courtney Dial, who teaches third grade ELL students in Nashville, said that’s not enough time.

“It usually takes about five to seven years for students to really show that mastery of a language,” Dial said.

Others have raised concerns about students who have to leave their school district over the summer for custody arrangements. And on a logistical level, some have questioned the timeline for re-testing.

Back in February, Metro Nashville School Board member Freda Player worried about overcrowding if many students get held back.

“That space gets taken up, and then we have to find more space and more teachers and build more portables,” Player said.

Among the changes that the legislature passed for next year’s third graders is a measure that lets school employees help appeal a retention decision. Under current law, only parents or guardians can do this. Another change will open a new pathway to the fourth grade based on an additional test score, but it still requires a full school year of tutoring.

How did we get here?

Legislators originally passed the third grade retention law in 2021 as part of a special session focused on pandemic learning loss. Lawmakers raised concerns about a majority of Tennessee third graders scoring less than proficient on the state’s standardized test.

This legislative session, many Republicans have said that the intention of the law is not to hold students back, but to support them on getting caught up on reading.

Sonya Thomas, the executive director of Nashville PROPEL, expressed support for the learning interventions. Her group advocates for equitable education for students in Black and brown communities.

“For far too long, our children have been passed on from grade to grade without being able to read,” she said.

But other parents have said the threat of retention puts too much stress on kids.

Alexis Marshall is WPLN News’s education reporter. She is a Middle Tennessee native and started listening to WPLN as a high schooler in Murfreesboro. She got her start in public radio freelance producing for NPR and reporting at WMOT, the on-campus station at MTSU. She was the reporting intern at WPLN News in the fall of 2018 and afterward an intern on NPR’s Education Desk. Alexis returned to WPLN in 2020 as a newscast producer and took over the education beat in 2022. Marshall contributes regularly to WPLN's partnership with Nashville Noticias, a Spanish language news program, and studies Arabic. When she's not reporting, you can find her cooking, crocheting or foraging for mushrooms.
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