NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Three out of four Nashville third graders are not reading on grade level, according to Metro Nashville Public Schools. These are statistics that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic sent school districts nationwide scrambling to pivot their methods.

MNPS Interim Director for Elementary Literacy Aliya Washington Smith said one contributing factor was state standards changing a few years ago for what it meant to read at grade level. The Metro school district was at about 29% for third graders while the state was at 37%.

“One of the challenges for us is that there were higher expectations for students but we had materials in schools and in classrooms that were aligned to the old standards. So as a district, when the standards change we immediately took some action to supplement our curriculum to ensure greater alignment to the standards,” said Smith. “But as time progressed and we reached an ELA textbook adoption year last year we realized there were much better quality instructional materials.”

The district will aim to get some of that new material into the hands of students and teachers through a new initiative that starts next year.

“If it can be used to ensure that every single student has a certified teacher in their classroom and every single student has the instructional materials that they need and that teacher is supported to do their job and is allowed really to focus on that work then that’ll be great,” said Metro Nashville Education Associated President, Amanda Kail.

She said she has always told people that one hundred percent of her middle school students arrive below grade level and leave below grade level because she teaches English learners. She felt many of those students experienced “interrupted schooling” due to a lack of enough certified teachers. Kail said these concerns existed as Tennessee is 46th in the nation for per-pupil investment.

“It is really common for there to be a revolving door of teachers in a lot of our schools. We can’t keep them,” she explained. “We don’t have a comprehensive teacher-mentoring program for our new teachers. The district is working on getting them but we don’t have curriculums, we don’t have teaching supplies, and a lot of teachers get overwhelmed and they leave. If a student has a substitute for half the year as their ELA teacher, are they going to learn? No. We see that especially in our highest-need schools, our highest-poverty schools. “

Due to students having complex backgrounds, Kail said that a single test statistic does not give the full picture.

“That test is not differentiated. It is not set up in a way that is going to access what kids know and don’t know,” Kail explained. “A lot of states don’t do the high stakes testing anymore. They have changed how they do things. A lot of teachers will tell you it’s much more helpful to do smaller tests periodically throughout the year.”

She feared the results of a single test can end up labeling students instead of reflecting their true standings. Kail shared an example about one of her top students.

“He moved here from Africa and worked really hard on reading and writing and I thought this was going to be my star student, he’s going to blow this test right out of the water and disprove everything,” Kail recalled. “And, I watched him completely meltdown during this test because he just got increasingly agitated and he finally raised his hand and asked me ‘Miss Kail what is ‘we’?” He pointed and it said ‘W-W-I-I… World War Two” but he had just come here from another country, he didn’t know what that meant. His social studies were on ancient civilizations that year.”

District leaders said they were working to provide additional layers of support for English learners, who were adversely challenged with reading on grade level.

“What’s great about the particular curricula materials that we will have in place for the 2021-2022 school year is that they embed some of the language development scaffolds that are very important to our English language learners,” Smith said.

She added that the actual instruction and classroom practices were also causing reading problems that the district has been working to address.

“This misalignment between the instructional materials and the expectations of the state standards as well as some revisions that need to take place with classroom practices with the instruction that students experience, these were all things that we know need to be addressed and they contribute to the achievement that we’re seeing,” Smith explained.

The COVID-19 pandemic then came along and shifted the district’s focus for its students towards trying to eliminate long-standing educational disparities that were highlighted in virtual learning. They’re keeping a close watch on how this is impacting a student’s literacy.

“We continue to use some of the same sorts of data sources that we used in the past to monitor where students are,” Smith said. “We really expanded it this year to include kindergarten. That data is giving us some information and we are acting on that information but we are also looking ahead and considering what students need.”

The district is hoping to address that learning loss this year by inviting students to summer learning camps. The deadline to register is May 5.