Tennessee Passes Ill-Advised Third Grade Retention Policy

So, the General Assembly has passed a bill essentially creating mandatory retention for third grade students who fail to meet certain benchmarks on TNReady tests.

Here’s the key text from HB 7004, that passed overwhelmingly in both chambers:

(1) 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 (ELA) based on the student’s achieving a performance level rating of “on track” or “mastered” on the ELA portion of the student’s most recent Tennessee comprehensive assessment program (TCAP) test.

The bill outlines a series of potential ways a student may ultimately be promoted even if they fall into this category. Attending a summer “mini-camp,” for example.

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

Of course, there is the “ Mississippi Miracle.”

There’s a lot to read in that article by Paul Thomas, but here are some key points regarding third grade retention:

But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K-3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year). This implies that over the four grades, as many as 32 percent of all Mississippi students are held back; a more reasonable estimate is closer to 20 to 25 percent, allowing for some to be held back twice. (Mississippi’s Department of Education does not report how many students are retained more than once.)

Thomas adds:

This last concern means that significant numbers of students in states with 3rd-grade retention based on reading achievement and test scores are biologically 5th-graders being held to 4th-grade proficiency levels. Grade retention is not only correlated with many negative outcomes ( dropping out, for example), but also likely associated with “false positives” on testing; as well, most states seeing bumps in 4th-grade test scores also show that those gains disappear by middle and high school.

So, we’ve adopted as the official policy of the state of Tennessee a policy that Mississippi used to create a mirage of educational improvement while changing precious little in terms of actual investment in kids.

It seems Tennessee policymakers are once again looking for some sort of “fastest improving “ press release instead of looking for meaningful policy change.

Oh, and here’s another interesting note. The test being used to determine retention is the TNReady test. Yes, that one. Yes, THAT one.

While the tests were ultimately suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are currently envisioned as being delivered on pencil-and-paper, the goal is to return to online testing. However, that return is fraught with potential problems. Not least of which is the fact that our state has had some . . . uh, trouble, with administering an online test.

Here’s how one national expert described Tennessee’s experience with online testing:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Of course, those third graders also need to watch out for hackers and dump trucks, because we all know those two things can really foul up a test!

Here’s Sen. Yarbro explaining the problems with this bill:

“We are creating a high stakes test for 8-year-olds.”

“We are extending a 6 week period for every district & we are not sending anywhere near the resources to pay for it.”

“We haven’t heard from a single educator in this process.”@yarbro raises serious concerns about HB7004. pic.twitter.com/xPp0gC4dmH

- The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) January 21, 2021

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Originally published at http://tnedreport.com on January 22, 2021.

Writer and policy advocate living in Nashville, TN

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