NASHVILLE, Tenn. – With the Tennessee General Assembly set to reconvene next month, State Rep. Bryan Terry, MD, (R-Murfreesboro) believes that the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act, commonly known as the third-grade retention law, will likely be a topic of discussion with possible changes forthcoming.
“Ensuring that our students can read proficiently is one of the most important things that we can do to help them be successful, academically and in their life or career goals,” Terry said. “However, we also know that every child’s progress or path is not the same. While there has been some misinformation surrounding the third-grade retention law, the discussion has allowed for a renewed inspection of the legislation, and I do think there is an opportunity to make improvements that will help students, parents and our education system.”
The General Assembly passed the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act along with the Literary Success Act during a special legislative session in early 2021. The laws were aimed at improving literacy rates and tackling learning loss caused by COVID-19.
At the time, Tennessee was suffering from a 33 percent reading proficiency rate for third graders, so the state’s retention law was updated to provide students with additional academic support before being promoted to the fourth grade. Provisions of the law were implemented statewide, including Murfreesboro City Schools and Rutherford County Schools, in 2021. However, the timeline for other provisions of the law, including the third-grade retention portion, were intentionally delayed so that local education associations could prepare for the ambitious goals.
Terry, along with other members of the Rutherford County legislative delegation, hosted Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to discuss the state’s third-grade retention law during a community forum at the Smyrna Event Center in September. Schwinn addressed a multitude of questions that were provided by the community about the law, and provided clarity about some of its misconceptions, including that if a third grader fails one test then they will automatically be held back. The event spurred some ideas which Terry has discussed with the local superintendents and with the Department of Education.
“Having a 33 percent literacy rate is unacceptable, and the legislation that was passed last year was a calculated step towards improving literacy rates across our state,” Terry said. “However, as with many laws that are passed, once enacted, it becomes apparent that some refinements may be necessary. The goal of the law is to identify students that are falling behind or who are at risk and provide them with the resources necessary to stay on track. I do believe that process can be improved, and I’ve had discussions on some refinements.”
Students with a performance level of “approaching” or “below” on the English Language Arts (ELA) section of the TCAP assessments can still move on to the fourth grade in certain cases. Those include:
- The student has a disability
- The student is an English learner and has received less than 2 years of English instruction
- The student has been retained previously
- The student has a suspected disability that impacts literacy development
- The student was on-grade level on the re-take test
- The student was enrolled in summer programming with at least 90% attendance and made adequate growth. If the student scored “below” then they must also be allowed to receive free tutoring at school during the fourth grade.
- The parent(s) or legal guardian(s) of a student with a score of “approaching” can also appeal the decision to retain their child
Terry said that the appeals process and the literacy growth assessment piqued an idea that he believes may provide an alternative pathway for promotion that could ease the strain and relieve some concerns.
“Schools currently utilize reading screeners throughout the year to identify students at risk. Once identified, the intent is for schools to provide resources to these students to help them be on track,” Terry said. “The key point is that the Department of Education said they would review the student growth on the screeners to help determine if a student could win an appeal. I simply asked if the Department could set a growth metric for an automatic or preemptive win on appeal. If the screener is going to be used for consideration on the appeal anyway, why not go ahead and provide the students and parents with that pathway to lessen the stress of the situation?”
Terry said the department has been in the process of putting together a metric, but these changes may require new legislation which he may file.
“There will likely be several legislators looking to improve the current law,” Terry said. “I plan on having further discussions with the Chairman of our House Education Committee and the Department on this issue. It may be that I will need to file legislation, and I’m prepared to do so, if necessary.”
Additional information about third grade promotion can be found on the Tennessee Department of Education’s website.
The 113th Tennessee General Assembly is scheduled to being on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.