COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — At just eight years old, Harper Burnett decided to turn her tears over Tennessee’s newly enacted third grade retention law into action.
“I’m sad and mad, and I don’t feel smart just because of a test,” wrote Harper in a letter she sent to her state representative.
The TCAP is a state standardized test that a state website says, “is designed to assess true student understanding, not just basic memorization and test-taking skills.”
However, because of a new state law meant to keep students reading at grade level, a third-grader’s results on the test decides whether they’ll automatically go on to the next grade.
Last week, Harper’s mom, Leah Burnett, learned her daughter had scored at “approaching grade level” on the reading portion of the TCAP.
While only points away from passing it, this meant she would get held back unless other steps were taken.
“Her teacher called me and she was upset. I was her first call and she said, ‘I know it’s safe to cry to you.’ When she called me and she was in tears, because she, she knows how hard Harper worked,” Leah said.
While now a straight A student, Harper wasn’t always a strong reader, her mom said.
Harper attended learning camps over the last two summers and has been studying before and after school to be on grade level. Leah said her daughter deserves a break after a difficult school year and summers disrupted by the pandemic.
“She has made so many gains, and I know I’m educated enough. I’ve three degrees to decide if my child needs to go to summer school or not. She deserves fun this summer; she’s putting in the work,” Leah said.
After getting the same score on a retake of the test, Harper told her mom she wanted to do something about the law.
“It made me want to write that to them because it just felt wrong,” Harper said about writing her letter. “They don’t get to decide how I live my life.”
The video of Harper reading her letter has been shared more than 100 people on Facebook and viewed thousands of times on other social media websites.
Republican supporters of the law have stressed the law’s importance, especially after COVID-19 disrupted learning.
“Reading is foundational and is the fundamental foundation of everything that we do, and we’ve got to get those students pushed up reading to grade level,” said Rep. Jason Zachary (R—Knoxville) in a video posted to Twitter.
Zachary also noted there are ways for parents to have their child advance to the next grade level if they didn’t get a high enough score.
Third-graders in Harper’s position are able to appeal the results, attend summer learning camps, or sign up for extra tutoring while they attend fourth grade.
Leah said lawmakers aren’t considering the scars this law may leave on students, like test anxiety or potential bullying over being held back.
“I think people are going to make fun of me if I don’t go to fourth grade,” Harper said.
While planning to appeal the decision to retain her daughter, Leah thinks the process has taught something more important than how to take a standardized test — how to use her voice.
“I have learned that you have to speak up for yourself when something’s not right,” Harper said.
Harper and her mom said they have a meeting set up with their state representative in the coming weeks.