Reading Scores Show Promise as 3rd Grade Retention Law Takes Effect

Nashville education blogger TC Weber takes a look at a recent Comptroller’s report on literacy in the state and finds some reason for encouragement. There’s a bit of confusion, too, in terms of whether or not the growth reflected in the results shared will translate into better overall reading scores.

The issue is particularly salient this year, as a new law takes effect requiring retention for any third grader who fails to meet state benchmarks in reading.

Here’s more from Weber on the Comptroller’s report:

A recently released report from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office shows that Tennessee K-3 students are making positive, albeit slight, growth in acquiring reading skills. Those conclusions were drawn from state-mandated K-3 universal reading screeners (URS), which all school districts are required to administer as part of legislation passed in 2021 during a Special Session of the General Assembly on education.

Based on graphs included in the Comptrollers report, third-grade students saw the most movement, with students starting at 43 percent in the Fall of 2021, growing to 45 percent in the Winter, and then achieving a Spring 2022 score of 46 percent.

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New Third Grade Law “Devastating”

One middle Tennessee mom says she was devastated when she learned of Tennessee’s new third grade retention law that goes into effect this year. The law requires that any third-grade student who scores at “below expectations” or “approaching expectations” on the state’s TNReady test in reading be held back unless they complete summer school and possibly enroll in a tutoring program during the school year.

Nearly 70% of all Tennessee third grade students score at that level on TNReady in any given year. In other words, even if a majority of them complete the summer program and participate in tutoring, a significant portion of third grade students will be forced to repeat third grade in 2023.

Here’s more from WKRN on this story:

One day and one test could change the life of Anna Sturm’s son.

“I was devastated when I read it,” she said. “As a mother, it was such a disheartening thing to read that this is going to be something that could impact my child and thousands and thousands of children.”

The news report also notes that the Murfreesboro City Schools have crafted a resolution asking the state to reconsider the legislation and make changes when they return to session in January.

That’s something the bill’s sponsor says he may be open to – though he was vague on what those changes may look like:

It’s worth noting, too, that the policy is based on a single test taken on a single day – and it’s a test that has not exactly been reliable in recent years:

The legislature appropriated no additional funds to help schools support third grade students nor are there funds available for the necessary summer reading and school year tutoring programs mandated by the law.

Instead, it seems legislators just passed a law and hoped that change would magically happen.

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I Don’t Even Have a Headline

So, the General Assembly has passed a bill essentially creating mandatory retention for third grade students who fail to meet certain benchmarks on TNReady tests.

Here’s the key text from HB 7004, that passed overwhelmingly in both chambers:

(1) Beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, a student in the third
grade shall not be promoted to the next grade level unless the student is
determined to be proficient in English language arts (ELA) based on the student’s achieving a performance level rating of “on track” or “mastered” on the ELA portion of the student’s most recent Tennessee comprehensive assessment program (TCAP) test.

The bill outlines a series of potential ways a student may ultimately be promoted even if they fall into this category. Attending a summer “mini-camp,” for example.

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

Of course, there is the “Mississippi Miracle.”

There’s a lot to read in that article by Paul Thomas, but here are some key points regarding third grade retention:

But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K–3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year). This implies that over the four grades, as many as 32 percent of all Mississippi students are held back; a more reasonable estimate is closer to 20 to 25 percent, allowing for some to be held back twice. (Mississippi’s Department of Education does not report how many students are retained more than once.)

Thomas adds:

This last concern means that significant numbers of students in states with 3rd-grade retention based on reading achievement and test scores are biologically 5th-graders being held to 4th-grade proficiency levels. Grade retention is not only correlated with many negative outcomes (dropping out, for example), but also likely associated with “false positives” on testing; as well, most states seeing bumps in 4th-grade test scores also show that those gains disappear by middle and high school.

So, we’ve adopted as the official policy of the state of Tennessee a policy that Mississippi used to create a mirage of educational improvement while changing precious little in terms of actual investment in kids.

It seems Tennessee policymakers are once again looking for some sort of “fastest improving” press release instead of looking for meaningful policy change.

Oh, and here’s another interesting note. The test being used to determine retention is the TNReady test. Yes, that one. Yes, THAT one.

While the tests were ultimately suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are currently envisioned as being delivered on pencil-and-paper, the goal is to return to online testing. However, that return is fraught with potential problems. Not least of which is the fact that our state has had some . . . uh, trouble, with administering an online test.

Here’s how one national expert described Tennessee’s experience with online testing:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Of course, those third graders also need to watch out for hackers and dump trucks, because we all know those two things can really foul up a test!

Here’s Sen. Yarbro explaining the problems with this bill:

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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