RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN)– A Tennessee law going into effect this spring puts tens of thousands of children across the state at risk of being held back from the fourth grade.
However, one of the main lawmakers behind the third-grade retention law is saying after listening to criticism of it he is open to making some changes when the legislative session resumes.
“When you pass legislation a lot of times it does is it gets people’s attention. We are there every year in General Assembly and we can always modify as we need to,” said Tennessee House Education Administration Chair Rep. Mark White.
White said he had been hearing for years from business leaders and community leaders across the state that students finishing a K-12 education in Tennessee are not reading at the appropriate level. He also said a student not at a reading level in third grade is more likely to drop out of high school, which is backed up by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
While the law passed in 2021, it is set to go into effect in 2023, which means third graders in Tennessee now are the first to be impacted by this law.
In response to recent news stories and social media chatter about the law, Rutherford County School Director Jimmy Sullivan stood in front of a classroom whiteboard to explain what his district is doing about the law and the problems he has with it.
“The intent of the law is strong, we want our kids reading on grade level,” Sullivan said in the video addressing third-grade parents but added. “The application doesn’t make a whole lot of logistical sense.”
He explains the law is based on how a third grader performs on the reading section of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) end-of-year test, which only about 70% of students performed up to grade level on in 2021.
He says one test may not reflect a student’s actual reading level, could cause them a lot of stress, and he adds, the law doesn’t give parents or teachers an easy path to say whether a child should be continuing onto the next grade.
“This is, again, just a measure of how they perform one day in the classroom on a specific standardized test, it is not what they do on a daily basis with their teachers,” Sullivan said. “If you as a parent know your child was sick on testing day, they didn’t perform well, the only option you have to appeal this decision is not to the director of schools, not to the school board, it’s to the Tennessee Education Commissioner herself to overturn that decision.”
White applauded Sullivan’s breakdown of the law and said other school district leaders should follow his example.
“We can look at this come January and modify the law if we think that’s what needs to be done,” White said. “Personally, I wouldn’t mind looking at benchmarks of reading throughout the year so we don’t get to the end of the year and find out that Johnny isn’t reading adequately.”
White said he is always open to listening to parents on what they think is best for their children, but said parents need to also be part of the solution.
“Do everything you can to adequately help that child before they come to school, and if they are struggling, read to them at night,” he said.
When asked if he would consider adding funding to this bill to support schools with tutoring efforts and summer programs, White again expressed a willingness to talk about it.
“That is one of the big objections. We can look at this come January and modify the law if we think that’s what needs to be done,” he said.
However, he said any changes to the law need to be made with his original vision of it in mind.
“Reading is a serious problem in our state and we are going to work together to figure this out, but we are not going to continue to kick the can down the road.”