Tennessee State Board Recommends Starting Reading Law’s Retention Policies in Kindergarten

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The top education policy board in Tennessee is recommending that Gov. Bill Lee and state legislators shift their focus to assist struggling readers in lower grades, including kindergarten, rather than waiting until third or fourth grade to provide support.

The state Board of Education approved a resolution on Monday, calling for a review of the state’s literacy law passed in 2021, which targeted third and fourth graders and enforced retention rules for students scoring poorly on state exams.

The board has spent the past three years navigating the implementation of the controversial law, introduced during a special legislative session in response to pandemic learning disruptions.

The law introduced summer learning camps and tutoring programs and included provisions allowing for the retention of ill-performing third and fourth graders in English language arts based on the TCAP results.

Third grade marks the beginning of TCAP testing in Tennessee and is crucial for developing reading proficiency, seen as fundamental for subsequent learning.

The board’s call to reconsider the retention provision of the law stems from new tools used by Tennessee teachers to detect reading issues in students before third grade.

“Retaining students in grades K-3 instead of 3-4 will ensure that those requiring additional reading support receive foundational literacy instruction at a critical developmental stage,” the resolution states.

While the costs and benefits of student retention remain uncertain in research, educators generally agree that earlier intervention yields better outcomes for struggling students.

“Third grade is too late,” Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds emphasized when discussing the adequacy of Tennessee’s reading law.

Moreover, students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade in Tennessee now undergo three annual tests to identify potential reading challenges. Although data from these tests was not available when the 2021 law was passed, it can now be utilized to prompt early academic support, interventions, and retention decisions.

Ryan Holt, the board representative for Nashville and author of the resolution, acknowledged the law’s positive intent while calling for a “course correction.”

Executive Director Sara Morrison echoed this sentiment, expressing the necessity to examine earlier grades and use data responsibly for timely academic decisions.

While several thousand third graders faced potential retention due to TCAP scores last year, only around 900 students, or 1.2%, were ultimately retained—a figure similar to an average academic year—thanks to intervention options and appeals utilized by many families.

The law now mandates that this year’s fourth graders facing inadequate TCAP scores be retained unless they show proficient improvement.

Projections suggest a higher retention rate for fourth graders compared to third graders due to fewer exemptions granted under the law.

Recently, the state board established criteria for gauging satisfactory progress for fourth graders, prompting discussions on the law’s age specificity.

“Let’s prioritize working with teachers who advocate for early intervention. Let’s not delay,” Larry Jensen, representing the Memphis area on the board, emphasized.

Board Chairman Robert Eby from Oak Ridge emphasized the board’s important role in advocating for education by urging officials to address these issues.

“We rarely issue resolutions,” Eby pointed out. “This highlights the significance we attribute to this matter.”

When questioned about the board’s resolution, the governor’s spokeswoman reiterated the law’s objectives, assistance, and effects.

“Starting from kindergarten, students have access to intensive tutoring and summer school programs that reinforce proven phonics-based teaching,” stated Elizabeth Lane Johnson, Lee’s press secretary. “Parents and teachers can monitor students’ progress through scheduled reading assessments to customize their education based on individual needs.”

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