Tennessee’s New Third-Grade Retention Law: A Crisis of Low Scores and a Controversial Mandate

In January 2021, the Tennessee legislature convened for a special session in response to the crisis posed by the global pandemic to public education. Along with measures to address accountability, learning loss, and teacher pay, legislators also turned their attention to another crisis that has been simmering since long before the beginning of the pandemic.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Tennessee’s fourth-grade reading scores, hovering at 35% of students reading on grade level, have not improved significantly since 2013. Statewide, testing on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) has demonstrated similarly laggard results. Thus, the Tennessee legislature passed the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act (TLLRSAA) and the Tennessee Literacy Success Act (TLSA), which center tutoring, summer learning camps, phonics-based literacy instruction and intervention for students who demonstrate deficits on district-selected universal reading screeners. Alongside these monumental steps forward was a controversial provision that mandates retention for students who are not reading on or above grade level at the end of third grade.

History of Third-Grade Retention

Third-grade retention laws are nothing new. Indeed, the retention provision in the TLLRSAA simply strengthened a pre-existing law specifying that third-grade students who lack a basic understanding of curriculum and ability to perform the skills required in the subject of reading be retained or provided interventions in the next year. California was the first state to require retention for third-grade students reading below grade level, and since then, states as varied as Texas, Indiana, and Connecticut have enacted third-grade reading retention laws and policies.

So Which Part is Controversial and Why?

The TLLRSAA establishes clear action steps for students who fail to meet or exceed expectations on the ELA portion of the TCAP. Along with the option to simply retake the test in the summer, students who score “approaching expectations” and want to progress to fourth grade must either attend a summer bridge camp or participate in high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring throughout fourth grade. (Students who score “below expectations” must participate in both of these interventions.) These students must demonstrate adequate growth on the ELA portion of the TCAP in fourth grade in order to be promoted to fifth grade. All other students who score “approaching” or “below” will be retained in third grade. (There are exceptions for students who are English language learners with less than two years of ELA instruction, students with disabilities [or suspected disabilities] impacting reading, and students who were previously retained.)

The research into the impact of third-grade retention has been mixed. Historically, many schools have been hesitant to retain individual students, especially in later grades, because the practice can be correlated with negative academic, emotional, and social outcomes. Of course, a state-wide policy of retention may create different outcomes. Florida’s third-grade retention law has led to short-term academic gains for students (though these gains fade out after five years) along with higher course grades in high school with no detrimental impact on graduation rates. At the same time, North Carolina’s third grade retention law saw mostly stagnation and decline among elementary reading rates. In the meantime, Louisiana and Mississippi, which both passed third-grade retention laws similar to Tennessee’s, have modified these provisions to decrease the number of retained students and emphasize growth over achievement, respectively.

How Will Tennessee Fund It? 

One common concern across many communities has been funding this mandate. The cost of retention as an intervention is expensive. Hamilton County spent a total of $10,849.80 per pupil in 2020. Had this law been in effect in the 2021-2022 school year, 2,143 students in Hamilton County would have been at risk of retention. The cost to retain all of them for one more year of third grade would have exceeded $23 million. This does not take into account the extra costs associated with staging summer bridge camps and tutoring—notwithstanding the minimal investment of $500 per pupil for tutoring that Tennessee has made under its new funding formula.

Tennessee’s legislators have expressed an openness to tweaking the law following increased public awareness and concerns about the high number of third-grade students at risk of retention. As such, the following are questions for consideration:

    • How will Tennessee pay for the ongoing cost of the retention provision, including
      summer bridge camps and tutoring?
    • How will Tennessee support the hiring of high-quality tutors to provide targeted
      support for fourth-grade students who did not meet expectations in third grade?
    • How will Tennessee build buy-in from families who do not believe TCAP is an
      accurate measure of their child’s reading abilities?
    • How will Tennessee support the social-emotional wellbeing of students who are
      retained?

Third-grade literacy is an indisputably important predictor of future success, and continued low reading rates, especially among student subgroups, are a crisis of academic, economic, and moral proportions. Representative Mark White, Chair of the Education Administration Committee, was entirely correct that Tennessee cannot continue to “kick this can down the road.” Now it is up to all of us to ensure that we get reading right for our children. They are counting on us.

 

Brandon Hubbard-Heitz is Chattanooga 2.0’s Director of Literacy and Student Strategies. He began his career in education as a teacher in South Dakota and Pennsylvania before moving to Chattanooga, where he led district efforts to improve literacy and served as an elementary school assistant principal.

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