NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — No matter who you ask, the Tennessee third-grade retention law is polarizing.
“I’ve probably gotten more letters, emails, and calls on third-grade retention this summer and fall than anything else,” said Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis).
Proponents argue it’s a necessary law because of where Tennessee student testing numbers are.
“What we’re trying to do is not retain students,” Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said. “We’re trying to propel students forward to succeed.”
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White and Lundberg chair the House Education Administration Committee and the Senate Education Committee, respectively.
This issue won’t divide them, but they do have different visions for the future.
“I’m comfortable with the law right now and how it is,” Lundberg said.
“We are going to deal with it, there’s already some legislation being proposed,” White said separately. “So, what I want to do is have a third-grade literacy committee dedicated to all those bills being filed. Let’s look at it and see where we go.”
When the original bill passed the legislature, it actually did so with broad bipartisan support, despite Democrats now opposing it.
Only three lawmakers voted no on the final draft—Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), and Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).
“This is no surprise to us,” Clemmons said. “Unfortunately, it’s a surprise to a lot of parents across the state of Tennessee because they didn’t realize what harm Governor Bill Lee and the Republican Party intended to do to their child.”
The law reads, “Beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, a student in the third grade shall not be promoted to the next grade level unless the student is determined to be proficient in English Language Arts.”
If the law, as it reads, were in effect last year, it would have held back roughly 68% of third graders, based on data from the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).
But Lundberg said there are mechanisms in place to prevent that.
“There is misinformation on this because a lot of teachers, a lot of educators, and a lot of parents thought, ‘Oh my gosh, all these kids are suddenly going to be prevented from going into fourth grade instantly,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
There are four categories that children fall into, based on how they score in the 3rd-grade reading section on the TCAP: below grade level, approaching grade level, meets grade level, and mastered grade level.
Data from the TDOE shows 32% are ‘below grade level’ and 36% are ‘approaching grade level.’
Under this new law, those who score ‘below grade level’ or ‘approaching grade level’ aren’t automatically held back. If they score in the ‘approaching grade level’ category, they have to either receive two tutoring sessions a week or go to a four-to-six-week summer camp.
If they score in the ‘below grade level’ category, they have to do both. If that happens, they pass to the fourth grade.
“The problem is we have a long state. I’m in Bristol, I’m 300 miles away from [Nashville], my colleagues in Memphis are 500 miles away from me,” Lundberg said. “We need something that shows us across the state, ‘here is our bar.’ It doesn’t need to change if you’re from Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis – we need that bar to be the same.”
Democrats argue, by putting that ‘bar’ in, it forces each student to conform to one specific test, rather than addressing their needs where they’re at.
“It places all importance on one standardized test,” Clemmons said. “You know, a child can have a bad day.”
Of course, the law could change, as White alluded to. Democrats are looking for more of a full repeal while some Republicans – like White – seek to have discussions about whether it needs to be altered.
The new session begins Jan. 10th.