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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Will 65% of Tennessee 3rd-graders repeat the year? Not likely

If Tennessee's read-or- repeat law had been in place last year, 65 percent of third graders would have been at-risk of retention for scoring at the "approaching" or "below" expectations level, reports Hechinger's Ariel Gilreath. The state can't hold back that many students, who should be held back?

Students will take the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, soon. Benchmark tests in Nashville show nearly 80 percent of students could score below the passing mark. The district urged all parents of third-graders to sign up their children for summer school, just in case, writes Gilreath.

This year's third graders were hurt the most by school closures, and have been the slowest to rebound, warns the education nonprofit NWEA.

Some parents say the threat of retention is punitive. It's not the kids' fault they missed out on foundational reading skills.

Students who are learning English and those with disabilities are exempt. In addition, children who are close to the standard may avoid repeating the grade if they attend summer school and show progress or retake and pass the test, writes Gilbreath. "Another provision allows students to move up a grade, as long as the school gives them tutoring for a full school year." Parents of "approaching expectations" students can appeal.

Legislators may amend the law before it goes into effect. The state just can't hold back that many students.

I predict only the "below expectations" students will repeat third grade, which means there will be less pressure to get the "approaching" kids to go to summer school or tutoring.

Many states with read-or-repeat laws give lots and lots of exemptions Gilbreath writes. In South Carolina "less than 10 percent of the more than 4,000 third graders who failed the test were retained in the law’s first year."

Retaining poor readers in third grade is the right strategy -- if it's done right, argues Fordham's Jessica Poiner, who taught English in Memphis. That means basing early literacy instruction on the science of reading, coaching teachers on effective techniques, adopting high-quality curricula and intervening with students before they hit the third-grade reading gate.

"In 2022, seventeen states mandated that schools hold back students who aren’t meeting reading standards by the end of third grade, and eight others allowed it," Poiner writes. "Since then, however, Michigan has repealed their requirement — joining Nevada as the only state to do so — and others are considering legislation to gut their policies."

Holding back third graders who read poorly has worked in Florida and Mississippi, according to recent research, writes Poiner.

Retention of the weakest readers has been crucial to the success of the Mississippi “learning miracle,” a recent analysis concludes. The law requires extra support for students and acts as “an accountability tool for the system’s adults, designed to support them in changing their practice.” Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has proposed an early literacy plan that includes many of the things that worked in Mississippi, writes Poiner. But that includes retention. Legislators want to eliminate that. She fears Ohio, which has a "long history of backing off" on high standards, will waffle again.

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