The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Melissa Knapp is Harpeth Valley Elementary School’s only literacy coach. It’s her job to guide teachers on how to help struggling readers at the 600-student school. She’s always busy, but this year, Knapp is fielding more questions than usual.

Only a few months remain before Tennessee third-grade students take a state reading test — students who don’t pass could be held back a year. The retention policy is part of a state law passed in 2021 that was meant to boost long-lagging reading scores and stem pandemic learning losses.

State legislators have been scrambling to consider changes to the law, which in its current form could affect well over half of the state’s third graders. And the clock is ticking.

“Here at school, we’re trying to not put the pressure at all on the students, but I know our third grade teachers really feel it,” Knapp said.

Melissa Knapp, the literacy coach for Harpeth Valley Elementary School, answers a first grade student’s question. The state has created a law that could mean that many more third graders than usual are retained an additional year. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

This year, Harpeth Valley flagged just 12 third graders as needing extra reading support, but the requirements of the expansive Tennessee law could put far more students at risk of retention.

Third graders must now pass the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, at the end of the year to avoid repeating third grade. The test has four grading levels: below expectations, approaching expectations, met expectations, or exceeded expectations. Students can be retained if they score in the lowest two categories — below, or approaching, expectations.

But some educators say the expectations Tennessee has set for its students are too high. Students could potentially score better on the TCAP than most of their state peers and still be placed in the “approaching expectations” category. If the current law had been in place last year, about 65 percent of third grade students in the state would have been at-risk of being held back a grade because they scored in two lowest categories.

“When we look at our students that are not quite hitting those third grade scores — that could be anywhere between the 41st and the 60th percentile,” said Amy Vagnier, assistant director of Maryville City Schools outside Knoxville. “Those aren’t the students that our third grade teachers would be naturally considering for retention.”

Almost three-quarters of Tennessee third graders are at risk of being held back a grade.

To prepare for the spring TCAP, students have already taken benchmark tests to gauge their chances of passing. Last fall, nearly 80 percent of third grade students in Metro Nashville Public Schools performed below the passing benchmark. Some of those students would be exempt from retention because of disabilities or limited English exposure. But because students will not know how they performed on the TCAP test until the results come back near the start of summer, the Nashville district is encouraging all of current third-graders to register for summer school before fourth grade as a precaution, drawing parent anger.

Knapp’s focus has never been just on third grade classes. Her intent has always been to help teachers with students who struggle the most. But now, more teachers are worried about third graders who get good grades in class but may miss the mark on the standardized test.

“We don’t just look at one assessment, which is going to be hard with the third grade retention law,” Knapp said. “Because it is just one assessment.”

Third graders work through a reading assignment at Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Nashville. The school has identified 12 third graders to receive extra reading support, but far more than that could face retention under a new state policy. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

Nationwide, students were hit hard by school disruptions caused by the pandemic. But students who are in third grade now were most affected. In reading, they lost more ground than students in grades four to eight. And though most students are starting to bounce back academically, third graders have been the slowest to rebound. A report from the education nonprofit NWEA suggests they’re struggling more than older students because the pandemic struck when they would have been learning foundational reading skills in kindergarten.

Tennessee’s reading retention law is trying to make up that lost ground. Although much of the law addresses how districts should run summer school programs, parents are upset about a section at the end that says third graders must be held back if they do not pass the TCAP. Some see the measure as a long overdue move toward raising literacy rates; critics say it’s punitive and will do more harm than good to schools that are still reeling from Covid-19.

“We got everybody’s attention. It kind of created a little bit of a firestorm,” said state Rep. Mark White, a co-sponsor of the law.

There are a few exceptions to the law’s retention requirements. In addition to English-language learners and students with disabilities, children on the cusp of meeting the standard may also avoid being held back if they regularly attend summer school and show ‘adequate growth’ — a term that is not defined in the law. Students can also take the test again before the next school year to try and achieve a passing grade.

Another provision allows students to move up a grade, as long as the school gives them tutoring for a full school year. Parents of students who score in the “approaching” category can also file an appeal, but the law does not state the criteria for granting an appeal.

Related: Third graders struggling the most to recover in reading after the pandemic

The retention law is not entirely new: A version has been on Tennessee’s books for more than a decade. But the older law left retention decisions up to districts.

Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students are likely to be affected the most by the most recent version of the law. Parents and teachers have been packing churches, school board rooms and legislative sessions in protest.

In response, lawmakers filed nearly two dozen amendments to the new law. One of those amendments, sponsored by White, would allow districts to consider third graders’ scores on a second state-approved test, but only if the students scored closed to proficient on the TCAP and above the 50th percentile on the second test. The bill would also require students who are retained to receive tutoring.

Ultimately, White said, the state is not going to completely get rid of the law or leave third grade retention up to districts.

“We’re not going to go back to that,” White said. “I will fight that with everything we have, as well as the administration. We can’t go back to where we were because what we were doing is not working.”

A copy of part of the literacy curriculum guide teachers follow at Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Nashville. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

Across the country, more than two dozen states have third grade reading laws. At least 19 of those require retention if a student doesn’t meet certain standards. Research says if students are behind in reading by the end of third grade, they are unlikely to ever catch up with their peers.

But in many states with retention laws, there are exemptions in place that reduce, sometimes enormously, the number of third grade students who are actually held back. For example, after South Carolina passed its own version of the law, less than 10 percent of the more than 4,000 third graders who failed the test were retained in the law’s first year.

The research on retention is mixed. There is a general consensus among educators that it often leads to negative outcomes for older students, but studies on retention in earlier grades, such as third grade, are more complicated.

Some studies indicate that students who are held back may have short-term behavioral problems while other studies link retention to academic gains that quickly fade out.

“We can’t go back to where we were, because what we were doing is not working.”

State Rep. Mark White

Recent studies have highlighted some positive outcomes. In Indiana, third grade students who were retained were more likely to perform better in math and language arts immediately after retention, and the improvements continued into middle school, according to a study published last year. A study of Florida’s third grade retention policy revealed that English language learners who were held back became proficient more quickly and were more likely to take advanced courses in middle and high school.

But districts that have had positive results when holding students back have not relied on retention alone to help students catch up. They have also invested heavily in literacy supports, such as intensive tutoring, said Umut Özek, a senior economist at RAND and co-author of the Florida study on retention and English language learners.

Students at Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Nashville work through an assignment on singular and plural nouns. The school is trying to keep the pressure of the new law away from students. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

Proponents of reading retention laws also point to the success of Tennessee’s neighbor to the south, Mississippi.

Education leaders there have credited their third grade reading retention law with the state’s significant growth in reading scores in recent years. From 2017 to 2019, Mississippi had the highest jump in fourth grade reading scores in the nation.

But Mississippi’s law, unlike its Tennessee counterpart, affects students whose reading scores are very low, a much smaller group. The retention rate for Mississippi third graders in 2018-19 was about 10 percent.

Mississippi also provides $15 million every year in funds for tutoring, literacy coaches, reading interventionists, summer programs and individualized reading plans.

“This is not just a third grade teacher’s responsibility — it’s a K-3 effort, and all of those teachers are responsible for getting each of those children ready for third grade,” said Kymyona Burk, a senior policy expert at ExcelinEd who previously helped implement Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act. “When we talk about a promotion/retention policy, the goal is prevention and intervention, and retention as a last resort.”

Related: Federal funds to combat pandemic learning loss don’t reflect need

But in Tennessee, it’s unclear how much money the state is providing to support its literacy law. White, who sponsored the retention bill, said the state legislature will likely approve funding needed for summer school programs, but the law says districts can also use already existing Temporary Aid for Needy Families funds to pay for costs associated with economically disadvantaged students.

“Some parts are funded, some parts are unfunded, and I do think it’s disproportionate based on your district,” said Breanna Sommers, a policy analyst with The Education Trust in Tennessee. “We know that, in some cases, maybe an entire third grade class is non-proficient, and [districts are] going to have to really foot the bill for a ton of that.”

“What we need is the interventions and not the retention piece of it.”

Lucy Kells, parent

While reading is a strong predictor of later school struggles, so is poverty. Third grade students who could read proficiently, but who came from low-income families, were still more likely to drop out of high school than students who had never lived in poverty and could not read as well, according to one study.

Even if schools use the best interventions at their disposal, they will never bridge the academic gaps between the lowest and highest achievers if there is not also a focus on fighting the effects of poverty, said Paul Reville, the former secretary of education for Massachusetts and a professor at Harvard University.

Issues such as exposure to violence, lack of health care and food and housing insecurity impede a child’s ability to learn at a high level. “Most governments are doing things in those areas, but what they’re doing is insufficient to be a strong enough intervention to have an effect on the rates at which students learn,” Reville said. “We have to do more.”

Teacher Lindsay Jones works with a small group of first graders at Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Nashville. The school, like others across the state, is dealing with the implications of a new reading retention law. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

When parent Lucy Kells found out from the Nashville school district in December that her daughter might be at risk of retention despite having good grades, she started attending legislative meetings and community hearings to fight back against the law. Kells said she would homeschool her child before letting her be held back a year because of a test.

“We all want our children to be able to read, and we want them to be able to read by third grade, but what we need is the interventions and not the retention piece of it,” Kells said. “If we want to look at retention, it needs to be an earlier grade.”

But for some parents, the law is bringing long overdue attention to struggling schools.

“If school teachers are just now reacting to it, then I question whether or not it’s being taken seriously. Children have been behind in literacy for decades,” said Sonya Thomas, the co-founder of the parent advocacy group Nashville PROPEL. “This is not about retention; this is about holding districts accountable to ensure that children are taught how to read.”

Melissa Knapp, Harpeth Valley Elementary’s literacy coach, observes a first grade class. Though she works with all students at the school, third graders are the focus of a new statewide reading retention law. Credit: Lily Estella Thompson for The Hechinger Report

Some 200 miles west of Nashville, in Memphis, about 1 in 3 children live in poverty. Roughly 77 percent of third grade students are at risk of being held back based on last year’s test scores. But some parents say they’re just now learning their children might be at risk.

Kennika Taylor, who has a third grade student in a charter school run by the Memphis Shelby County district, said she’s a hands-on parent. “I’m in the school. When I see something different, I’m trying to find out what’s going on. ‘Why did these grades drop? Why did this grade drop?’”

But Taylor said she hasn’t heard anything from the school about the state’s third grade reading retention law.

“They said she leveled out [on her reading test], but her reading grade went down from an A to a C. This is information I’m trying to figure out. Because I email, I call. Nobody emails or calls back,” Taylor said.

Related: Trial finds cheaper, quicker way to tutor young kids in reading

Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of the parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, said she frequently encounters parents who say communication with their children’s schools has been poor. This summer, Memphis Lift is bringing in a literacy group, called All Memphis, to meet with parents and screen their children’s reading levels.

“Memphis Lift is focusing all its time, energy and resources toward early literacy,” Carpenter said. “I believe if you’ve got a child in pre-K, you’ve got them in kindergarten, you’ve got them in first grade — you know where those kids are [by third grade]. There shouldn’t be any talk about retention.”

With less than two months left in the school year and changes to the retention law still up in the air, Harpeth Valley Elementary is trying to prepare for next year. There’s much to be proud of at the school, its leaders said: A new reading curriculum has brought down the number of students identified as needing a high level of support. Retired teachers have been brought in to lead before- and afterschool tutoring.

“Our growth projections look great,” said principal Ann-Marie Gleason. But the state standardized test looms.

“We typically project how many teachers will need in the grade level based on how many kids are in the grade level before,” Gleason said. “How do you prepare for that when some of the testing results aren’t going to be available until July?”

This story about Tennessee state standards was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. My granddaughter is a third grader in Tennessee. She is a straight A student, with a 97% average in ELA for the year. On earlier tests to gauge where students are performing and to collect data on how they should do on the TCAP, she scored 35% higher than the average. So there was no reason for her to be on the “watch list” of possible failure on the TCAP. Guess what, she did not pass. So now we wait until Friday to learn her fate….summer school, year long tutoring, or both. There is a major flaw, is it the curriculum, the teacher, or the test???? Answers, we need answers.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *