Nearly two-thirds of Cumberland County third-grade students are at risk of repeating the academic year, recently released data from the Tennessee Department of Education shows.
Only 34.42% of the county’s third-grade students met state expectations for reading and language arts on the 2023 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program exams administered earlier this spring. Under a 2021 law passed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students must meet grade-level proficiency in third-grade reading before they can advance to the fourth grade. This is the first year the rule is being implemented.
“We are retesting and working with families this week,” Karri Hobby, Cumberland County Schools supervisor of preK-8th grade curriculum and instruction, told the Chronicle.
The exact number of students who will be required to repeat the third grade is not yet known as the school system waits for scores from the retest and decisions on student appeals, which will be heard from May 30-June 30.
Tennessee Speaker of the House Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the schools have had two years to prepare for the law to take effect, but noted that historic scores on reading showed a need for the state to take action.
“We’ve been stagnant,” Sexton told the Chronicle. “And when you look at fourth and fifth grade, it doesn’t get any better.”
The state lauded gains made in literacy among third-graders even as 60% of students statewide face potential retention. Scores improved 4.3 percentage points from 2022 and have improved by almost 8 percentage points from 2021, which was the first test administered after the learning interruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s third-grade students were kindergarteners in the 2019-’20 school year, which ended abruptly in March.
In 2017, only 34% of third graders statewide met the state’s standards for English and language arts.
“If we’re going to improve our state ranking in education, it starts in K-3,” Sexton said.
The TCAP English-language arts test includes four parts, including a writing portion and questions that are intended to measure a student’s ability to read, analyze text, answer text-dependent questions and vocabulary.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed several provisions during a four-day special session in 2021 intended to help students improve in reading, including the use of phonics instruction and high-quality instructional materials. Cumberland County introduced a new reading curriculum in the fall of 2020.
The state also implemented summer learning programs and tutoring to support student learning.
This law also required retaining students in third grade if they failed to read on grade level unless students qualified for an exception — an English-language learner with less than two years of English instruction, a documented or suspected learning disability or having already been retained once before.
Before, state law required students to be able to read on grade level before advancing to the fourth grade, but school systems were allowed to make retention decisions. The 2021 law changed that.
If students do not qualify for an exception, they can retake the test in hopes of scoring on grade level and being approved for fourth-grade promotion. Other options include:
• For students scoring “approaching” — attend a four-week summer learning program, maintain 90% attendance and score at least 5 points higher on a post-program test; work with a state-provided tutor during fourth grade; or parents appeal the decision from their student’s school, documenting student growth or an event that impacts a student’s ability to perform
• For students scoring “below” expectations — attend a four-week summer learning program with at least 90% attendance and receive free tutoring throughout the fourth grade.
District-level scores show 23.33% or Cumberland County’s students scored “meets” expectations and 11.09% “exceeds” expectations.
Of the students who did not meet the state’s standards for being “on grade level,” 36.14% were “approaching” and 29.45% were “below.”
Parents can appeal beginning May 30 through the Tennessee Department of Education website: tn.gov/education/learning-acceleration.html. The appeals window will remain open through June 30. Parents or legal guardians must complete the form within 14 days of learning their student is at-risk for retention based on TCAP test performance.
Retake scores are expected by June 7.
Final retention notification of parents who are not participating in summer learning programs or other intervention pathways, like tutoring, is June 24, while retention decisions for students attending a summer learning program will learn if their student advances to the next grade no later than July 14.
Sexton noted the Tennessee General Assembly approved changes to third-grade retention for the 2023-’24 school year, but said there was not time to implement the changes for this school year.
Next year, schools can look at benchmark testing, conducted throughout the school year as part of retention decisions.
It will also require the state board of education to develop rules for appeals and require any student held back in kindergarten, first or second grade to have tutoring the following school year.
However, state education officials will remain in charge of retention decisions.
“I know there’s a lot of parents and educators that are upset about this,” Sexton said.
He pointed to Florida, which implemented a similar requirement in the 2003-’04 school year.
“Now, they don’t have this problem. Now, they’re moving forward. But in order to handle the jobs of today, you have to know math, you have to have reading comprehension and you have to be able to retain what you’ve learned.”
A may 2022 report in the Tampa Bay Times found 53% of Florida third-grade students passed state reading exams, which is down from pre-pandemic proficiency rates.
Chalkbeat reports about half of all states and the District of Columbia either require or encourage school districts to retain students in third grade if they do not meet reading standards.
In Cumberland County
530 third-grade students as of May 4, 2023
23.33% Meets Expectations
11.09% Exceeds Expectations
36.14% Approaching Expectations
29.45% Below Expectations
Around the state
Out of the 142 school systems, the following reported more than 50% of third grades were “on grade level”
Arlington Community Schools 77.52%
Bristol City Schools 50.73%
Chester County Schools 56.57%
Clinton City Schools 55.03%
Collierville Schools 73.55%
School District 69.44%
Municipal Schools 79.7%
Special School District 55.56%
Johnson City Schools 64.22%
Lakeland Schools 69.27%
Lewis County Schools 50.42%
Maryville City Schools 74.68%
Moore County Schools 50%
Newport City Schools 54.69%
Oak Ridge Schools 58.74%
Williamson County Schools 71.71%
Wilson County Schools, 50.18%
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