Tennessee’s third-grade reading assessment law is misguided

January 9, 2023 6:00 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

In the glamorous world of public education, August — not January — is the genesis of a new year. Resolutions are made. Goals are set. Even the bathrooms in a middle school smell okay.

I’ve never cared for August, though. There’s the awkward period of time struggling to learn students’ names and personalities. Hot weather and carpool duty in dress pants and a polo mean a colossal wet blanket of heat and humidity. 

Most of all, though, August is unpleasant because it’s the month teachers see their students’ results from the previous year’s standardized assessment:  the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP,) which is given in grades 3-8. The results of those tests are volatile — not because the students didn’t learn, but because the variables that occur on one given test day in the course of an entire year are simply too many to overcome to ever garner consistent quantifiable feedback.

I attended Tennessee public schools from kindergarten through high school graduation in 1997. The standardized tests I remember were the Stanford Achievement Test, the first version of the TCAP and, of course, the ACT that I took my senior year for college admission. 

I never heard my teachers mention standardized testing when we were reading a poem by Langston Hughes or a short story by Shirley Jackson. We discussed themes and symbolism and figurative language. When we read Mythology by Edith Hamilton, we compared those myths to other universal morality stories, and then wrote our own. 

My only memory of a standardized test score was when I would bring the results home to my mom and she would glance at them and toss them in the trash. 

Ten years after I graduated from the Jackson-Madison County School system, I found myself teaching 8th grade English in the same district, but the other side of education — the teacher’s side — looked nothing like I expected it to look.

In 2002, the Bush administration implemented the No Child Left Behind Act which gave a whole new meaning to “high stakes testing” and, in turn, made privatized testing companies a much more lucrative business. While the spirit of the bi-partisan law meant well, the reality of what it did to teachers and districts — especially those districts with students living at or below the poverty line— has been detrimental. 

During my first year of teaching, phrases like “teacher accountability,” “data disaggregation”, and “test prep” were routinely used in our weekly meetings. Everything we did instructionally was in preparation for the TCAP test in April because those scores were used to rank schools and districts as “successful” or “failing”. One test on one day for two to three hours was designed to determine if students, teachers, and districts were successful or not.

The reliance on these scores and the negative impact they have had on specific student populations has only gotten worse.

Students and teachers attend school 180 days during a school year — they read together, compute together, solve problems together. They do this through writing, discussion, collaboration, and creativity. But, by far, the largest millstone that is draped over the necks of every district in the state is the standardized test data used to determine if a teacher, school, and district are doing their jobs in an effective manner. 

Teachers are encouraged to facilitate learning, to allow students to ‘turn and talk’ and use projects and creativity to show what they’ve learned in class. But teachers and schools are judged on an assessment that doesn’t allow students to do any of those things. 

There are two ways to show “success” on the TCAP assessment: growth or achievement. 

To explain this in the least confusing way, a student’s growth score is determined by a formula that takes into account the student’s previous years scores on the TCAP in the given subject on which the student is being tested. 

An example of an eighth grade English Language Arts standard currently reads as follows:

8.L.AU.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on 8th grade-level text by choosing flexibly from a range of strategies. 

  1. Use context as a clue to the meaning of a word or a phrase. 
  2. Use common grade-appropriate morphological elements as clues to the meaning of a word or a phrase. 
  3. Consult reference materials, both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or phrase. 
  4. Use etymological patterns in spelling as clues to the meaning of a word or phrase.

Growth data is also measured against the student’s predicted score, which is determined by previous standardized assessment scores that were given on one day of a 180 day school year. If you’re still awake, I applaud you. As a teacher in a school that served a high number of students at or below the poverty line, we always focused on overall growth because the achievement measure was often out of reach.

The correlation between student achievement scores and the income levels of tested students is strong — and dire. Students who find themselves living at or near the poverty line rarely maintain a high achieving status as they progress in school if they ever achieve it at all. On the opposite side, students coming from families who have wealth tend to maintain their achievement status and continue to grow throughout their schooling. 

If socio-economic status weren’t enough, the texts in standardized testing are biased and full of experiences and contexts that many children who live in poverty cannot understand or contextually comprehend during the time allotted for testing.

As an English teacher, I have no knowledge about how to fix the engine of my car. I could get a manual of the engine. I could read every word and understand what those words meant. I could decipher the graphics, but I would need days and weeks to truly understand how those parts worked together and the best way to begin to fix my engine. In the end, I wouldn’t be able to figure it out even though I could read and understand every word in that manual. My reading comprehension wouldn’t be the issue; my lack of experience with auto manuals and car parts would be why I wasn’t “proficient” at engine repair. 

Oftentimes on standardized tests, students are presented with texts and stories of which they have no previous knowledge and then are expected to find the theme of the story (an ambiguous and subjective task in and of itself) within about five to ten minutes. But do questions about theme and symbolism in a story about a hike in the woods or the Dust Bowl actually measure reading comprehension? 

In 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act which would prevent students from advancing from third grade to fourth grade if students were not deemed “proficient” or higher on the third grade TCAP test. 

The law takes effect this school year. If it had been in effect last school year, nearly 65% of third grade students would have been unable to progress to the next grade. Because that situation is clearly untenable, the law provides a myriad of hoops to jump through should a student find themselves “below proficient” on the TCAP Assessment.

A student who fails to score as “proficient” in English Language Arts can attempt to rectify the problem through several measures, according to the Tennessee Department of Education, including attending a learning loss bridge camp, working with a tutor and taking the TCAP test for ELA again.

At its root, this new law — while well-meaning — is an issue of equity. The alternatives provided by the law to prevent a student from being held in the third grade only put extra strain on families who will have to use their limited time and resources to make sure their children are registered for summer programs or tutoring or a test retake of a test that arguably doesn’t even measure what legislators think it measures.

Thankfully, there are progressive benchmark assessments in place already that are approved by the Tennessee Department of Education that actually measure reading fluency and comprehension. These assessments are given three times a year and have students read aloud and answer basic comprehension and vocabulary questions. In each district where I’ve worked, these assessments were given throughout the year and help teachers make sure students are progressing at an appropriate rate.  

Much like the NCLB law in 2002, the spirit of this law is probably in the right place. We do need students reading text on grade level, but the application of this law is extremely misguided. And the legislators who are pushing it also don’t seem to quite understand what a standardized test actually measures.

There are progressive benchmark assessments in place already that are approved by the Tennessee Department of Education that actually measure reading fluency and comprehension. These assessments are given three times a year and have students read aloud and answer basic comprehension and vocabulary questions. In each district where I’ve worked, these assessments were given throughout the year and help teachers make sure students are progressing at an appropriate rate.  

Each August, as I sat in our department meeting and looked at every angle of the minutiae of data from the standardized test given four months prior, I would be making a plan for students to ensure they would perform as well as they could on a test that was generated by a multi-billion dollar company headquartered in another state. 

On both sides of the aisle — for whatever political gain each side seeks — there is always reference to third grade reading levels in the state of Tennessee. Should there be cause for concern? Yes. But can only 36% of our third grade students read in Tennessee? Absolutely not. Throwing statistics around recklessly might be a great political strategy, but it’s disingenuous at best and incredibly damaging at worst. 

The way information is consumed is evolving and being able to read is of utmost importance. More important than comprehension, however, is being able to tell what’s actually true rather than what’s simply an idea that’s dressed up as a caricature of truth. 

In what has been sweeping overreach in public education by state legislators — from banning a non-existent subject (CRT) to filing bills seeking to censor books — Republican lawmakers have systematically undermined public education for the last several years. This retention law is one more example of how far removed they are from the reality of what educating children actually entails. Before the top-heavy GOP brings any more bills to the table, they should take some time to talk with people who are actually in education. They can even start with me if they want. 


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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)