Despite investing her evenings in reading, a habit her mother, Shaneta Fletcher, confirms, nine-year-old Harmony Fletcher was unable to pass the English-Language Arts component of Tennessee’s assessment exam conducted last spring. Consequently, Harmony now finds herself among eight other students retreading the third-grade curriculum at her public charter school in Memphis.
Tennessee’s newest enforceable legislation requires third-grade students to demonstrate proficient reading skills or face grade retention. It’s a strategy aimed to mitigate the severe learning loss suffered amid the Covid-19 pandemic. While numerous states permit holding students back, Tennessee is the latest to legislate it.
The law was passed in 2021, catalyzed by the pandemic disruptions which resulted in children like Harmony missing out on vital foundational reading instruction. As per Professor Gregory Cizek, a specialist in educational measurement and evaluation, several states are adopting this route as a substantial measure to recover a year’s learning loss.
Recent data evidenced that, of all Tennessee third graders tested in the last spring, just 40% achieved proficiency in reading, a substantial leap from earlier years. Nevertheless, statewide data shows that the three largest school districts retained less than 1.5% third graders.
Children can still progress to the next grade under Tennessee law if they fulfill certain criteria: ace a test retake, complete a 90% attended summer school and agree to tutoring through the fourth grade. In cases where parents dispute retention, they can do so by evidencing the child’s strong performance in one of the periodic “screener” reading tests.
Harmony’s mother reported that her daughter’s summer school was more of a recreational experience. Harmony didn’t pass the retake, reinforcing her need to repeat the third grade.
Another concerned parent, Tamara Adams expressed her apprehensions about the emotional toll the retention might take on her son. Despite his “approaching proficiency” score, she decided on summer school, which she feels was quite inadequate.
While studies suggest short-lived academic gains from retention, others theorize it boosts dropout rates and bullying. Some researchers propose other student interventions such as tutoring, emotional support and teacher training as a better alternative.
Examining an analogous law Mississippi implemented in 2013, it is found that it significantly improved literacy outcomes. Boston University’s research showed that retained third graders who received additional support made substantial headway in their English-Language Arts aptitudes by sixth grade than students narrowly advanced to fourth grade. On average, Mississippi withholds 4 to 10 percent of third graders yearly due to reading and other issues.
For other students like Harmony, Libertas School of Memphis has acknowledged their retention, providing a bespoke curriculum to keep them engaged. They will also benefit from what’s referred to as “high dosage tutoring.”
However, concerns are being raised about the dependency on the results of a single comprehensive evaluation, TCAP. Citing the example of her straight-A daughter Echo, mother Marthia Sides-Shaw asserts the test is not reflective of her child’s reading proficiency. Sides-Shaw feels there should be more importance placed on a child’s overall grades and teacher evaluations when determining their academic progression.