Everyone can agree that they want kids to read well — the difficult part is agreeing on how to go about it. In 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation requiring third-graders who score beneath a certain level on the English language arts portion of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program to receive tutoring, attend summer school or be retained. The law, which updates similar 2011 legislation, is set to go into effect during this, the 2022-2023, school year, and it has created controversy and confusion as families and schools prepare for its possible implications. 

The legislation is commonly referred to as the third-grade retention law, but the law’s passage doesn’t necessarily mean students at that grade level who don’t pass the ELA portion of the TCAP are automatically held back. Those who score what’s deemed “approaching” will have the option to receive in-school tutoring in fourth grade or attend summer school programming (with a 90 percent attendance rate). Those who score “below” must take both of these routes. Students who do not fulfill these requirements would be retained. The law doesn’t apply to some students, however — including those who have been previously retained, students with disabilities or suspected disabilities, and English learners with fewer than two years of English instruction. Students can take a retest and families can submit an appeal to the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Policies like this exist in other states, and the emphasis on third-grade literacy comes from that grade level’s significance in determining future academic success. Even so, some lawmakers are questioning the legislation. Proponents of the law cite Tennessee students’ low reading scores and the need to address them. Currently, the majority of Tennessee’s third-graders would require some kind of intervention as required by the law. While research supports the effectiveness of targeted tutoring and academic interventions, it also indicates that retention can lead to negative implications such as stigmatization and bullying. Additionally, some folks disagree with staking retention on the results of a single test, and others say the TCAP test does not properly measure literacy.  According to the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, Nashville’s teacher’s union, the law is “an irresponsibly enacted piece of legislation that reduces students to one single standardized test, a practice that research shows is largely biased and an incomplete assessment of learning.”

“There are times when it is appropriate to retain children, but that decision has to be made at the local school with the teachers, the principal, the staff and the parent of that child,” says state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), a former public school teacher. “This is not a decision to be made by legislators in Nashville with zero experience in education.”

While Johnson tells the Scene that she’s “very likely going to have a bill that repeals the third-grade retention law,” the Republican supermajority likely won’t let that get very far. Some Republican legislators, however, are also interested in addressing the legislation in this year’s session. Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), who was chair of the Senate Education Committee during the last session, has shared that he isn’t interested in revisiting the law. Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis), most recent chair of the House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee, is. 

“We’ve heard from all the school districts across the state this summer and fall asking us to take a relook at that,” White tells the Scene. “What I want to do when we go back in session, I’m going to plan a committee hearing and we’re going to have bills addressing this. … I want to look at not third-grade retention, but I want to look at early childhood literacy. What are we not doing that’s causing this continual problem that not enough students are reading adequately?”

Though the law may or may not change, Metro Nashville Public Schools is preparing for its implications by encouraging parents of third-graders to sign their students up for Promising Scholars, the district’s summer program that spans the month of June. The TCAP test isn’t administered to third-graders until April, and students’ scores won’t be released until afterwards, but the registration window for Promising Scholars is open Jan. 17 through March 30. 

“We are encouraging 3rd grade parents to go ahead and plan now on registering their students for Promising Scholars this summer to ensure they are on track to get the interventions required and be promoted to 4th grade,” reads the district website

Those interested in getting involved by tutoring students can learn more at AcceleratingScholars.org. Johnson also suggests talking with your legislators about the law.  

Update, Jan. 11: On Tuesday, the Metro Nashville Public Schools board passed a resolution that "urges the Tennessee General Assembly to amend TCA 49-6-3115 to allow school districts to make retention decisions for third and fourth grade students based upon all school district information for each student and without delegating the final authority for such decisions to the State Board of Education.” On Wednesday, state Rep. Ron Travis (R-Dayton) filed a bill that would roll back the requirements of the the third-grade retention law.

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