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Will holding back struggling third-grade readers improve literacy? Tennessee’s governor thinks so, but others aren’t sure.

Overhead shot of a young child reading an illustrated children’s book about fish.
More struggling third-grade readers could be retained in Tennessee under Gov. Bill Lee’s push to address the state’s longstanding literacy challenges.
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Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to take a more aggressive stance holding back Tennessee third-graders who are struggling to read is drawing criticism from educators and parents who question his logic and timing.

As part of a plan to help stem pandemic-caused learning loss, Lee wants to strengthen a 2011 state law that has been largely unenforced, with few students actually being retained.

Beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, the governor wants to require schools to hold back third-graders who don’t meet a certain threshold on state standardized tests. Those students will be given a chance to take the test again or improve through new summer school or after-school tutoring programs slated to launch this year, but will be retained if they do not.

“When we stop the cycle of passing without preparation,” Lee told lawmakers Tuesday, “we give kids a better chance at succeeding in middle school and beyond.”

His plan, discussed briefly before a joint session of the General Assembly, has emerged as one of the most controversial among a slate of legislation lawmakers are considering this week during a special session on education. The legislature is looking at ways to get students back up to speed during the coronavirus pandemic and address longstanding concerns about student literacy and teacher pay.

Third grade is considered a critical year for reading because literacy is foundational to all subsequent learning. Research says students who aren’t proficient by that point are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Other research ties poor reading skills to higher rates of depression, teenage pregnancy, and pre-teen alcohol use.

But critics are concerned about the high bar for proficiency that the governor wants to set. Currently, only a third of the state’s third-graders could meet that threshold based on the results of the state’s most recent tests.

And that proficiency level would be determined by the results of a single test — the state’s annual spring assessment for English language arts which Tennessee has mostly struggled to administer cleanly since 2016 because of computer and logistical problems.

“We have a lot better readers in Tennessee than the state’s data suggests,” said Mike Winstead, superintendent of schools in Maryville and a member of the legislative committee for Tennessee’s superintendents organization.

He believes threatening young readers with remediation and retention if they fall just below the proposed threshold for proficiency is “misguided” and could end up demoralizing students.

Based on 2019 test results, about a fifth of Tennessee third-graders fall in the state’s bottom reading level, which Winstead views as needing remediation or potential retention. He’s most concerned about the 41% who are categorized as “approaching” grade level and also targeted by legislation that Lee has backed.

“A lot of those students just miss hitting the proficient mark by one or two questions and are labeled as significantly deficient in this bill,” Winstead said.

He thinks it would be smarter for the state to focus on students who score in the state’s bottom group — an approach echoed by many educators, said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee superintendents group.

“A lot of our teachers believe you can be proficient but still be categorized as approaching grade level,” Lynch said.

Some critics are questioning the governor’s timing. His retention proposal likely would eliminate many struggling third-graders from taking national reading tests scheduled for fourth-graders in 2024 as part of the National Assessment of Education Performance, also known as NAEP.

“If you keep kids in third grade so they don’t take the fourth-grade test, your NAEP scores look better and you have a Mississippi miracle,” Winstead said, referring to that state’s dramatic rise on the 2019 national test. “There’s a lot of ways to raise your test scores, and one way is to make sure that kids who can’t pass it don’t take it.”

State officials deny that’s their motivation. The goal, they say, is to help districts help their students who are most in need of improvement.

“This bill would provide significant and fully funded supports and pathways that have never been provided before, … with retention being the last of those pathways,” said a spokeswoman for the education department.

Others concerned about high-stakes testing question the bill’s dependence on a once-a-year test to gauge student proficiency. Tennessee plans to administer those tests in person this spring, even as the pandemic continues to disrupt schools.

Stephanie Love, a school board member in Memphis, said Tennessee’s embattled TNReady assessment has been unreliable during a normal year, much less during a public health crisis.

“I agree there should be some type of accountability measure,” she said, “but it has to be something we can trust.”

Nashville parent Sonya Thomas has other concerns about shifting to a punitive structure too soon. The state plans this year to start retraining teachers on phonics-based reading instruction and change how prospective teachers are taught in college to teach reading.

“I think we’ve got to put first things first,” said Thomas, who leads the Nashville Propel parents group. “We’ve got to equip our teachers. We can’t punish our children for something that is not their fault.”

Even before the governor proposed enforcing the state’s 2011 retention law, Memphis school leaders were considering whether to delay a new Shelby County Schools policy to start holding back struggling second-graders.

“The pandemic has changed everything,” Superintendent Joris Ray said earlier this month.

The school board approved the policy in 2019 and based it on students meeting eight of 12 criteria, not just TNReady test results. Ray now says he might wait to see the results of more district-administered reading tests before deciding whether to proceed.

“You’ve got to take that into consideration when you’re implementing anything that’s new and that’s going to possibly have an adverse effect on children,” he said.

Chalkbeat reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

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