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Tennessee Legislature Votes To Hold Back Third Graders Who Don’t Read At Grade Level

Alexis Marshall | WPLN

The Tennessee legislature approved Thursday a slate of bills meant to improve literacy among students, as well as hold schools harmless during the pandemic. One of the measures headed to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk allows schools to hold back third graders if they don’t read at grade level.

In Tennessee, about 64% of third graders have not been meeting that standard, according to the state’s education agency.

The proposal to hold back the lowest scorers for one year is meant to improve those numbers, says House Majority Leader William Lamberth.

“Obviously at some juncture you have to pass a child along even if they are not necessarily ready,” House Majority William Lamberth, R-Portland, said on the House floor. “But we are trying to avoid that.”

The measure— debated within two days of the special session and without the testimony of school leaders — is headed to Lee for his signature.

It establishes that if a third grader doesn’t meet certain criteria on the state’s standardized tests, he or she might have to repeat the grade.

But they could avoid repeating the grade if they retake the test or show some improvement by participating in summer or after-school programs.

Some school superintendents have pushed back. In an interview with Blount County’s The Daily Times, Maryville City Schools Director Mike Winstead opposed the measure.

“It’s about keeping the kids in third grade so that they don’t take the fourth grade NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) test so that your NAEP scores look better and you have a ‘Mississippi miracle,’ ” Winstead told the paper.

And Senator Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who voted against the measure, said it will complicate the process of education across the state.

“It is unquestionably important to focus on third grade reading,” Yarbro said. “But holding students back is usually not a pathway to success.”

Yarbro says students that repeat a grade are far more likely to not graduate from high school.

Measure to punish virtual schooling doesn’t advance

Meanwhile, a proposal that went after Nashville and Memphis schools for staying virtual during the pandemic stalled during the special session.

The bill, filed by Lamberth and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, stated that the commissioner of education would have the discretion to “withhold a portion or all of the Tennessee BEP funds” that the district or public charter school is otherwise eligible to receive if they didn’t return to in-person schooling.

The measure received pushback from the directors of Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“Any proposal to take funding away from students and threaten the mass layoff of teachers in the 2021-22 school year is terrible public policy,” MNPS Director Adrienne Battle said in a statement. “And does nothing to address any real learning challenges or gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, nor does it do anything to create a safer working or learning environment by slowing or stopping the spread of the coronavirus.”

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.
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