Tennessee school leaders prepare for new literacy law amid teacher shortages and a tight timeline

By: - March 13, 2023 12:01 pm
Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. Metro Nashville Public Schools will get Title 1 funds for low-income students slashed, but got boosts from other funding sources. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. Metro Nashville Public Schools will get Title 1 funds for low-income students slashed, but got boosts from other funding sources. (Photo: John Partipilo)

As Jacob Sorrells winds down his seventh year as director of Marshall County Schools, located south of Nashville, he is doing his best to plan for a new Tennessee law focused on third grade literacy. 

The test used to measure reading levels will be given this spring, with results released as the school year ends in May. Based on those outcomes, an unknown number of students will need to attend a summer learning camp in June, receive tutoring throughout their fourth grade or repeat third grade. Figuring out the new staffing levels needed for the summer and for the next school year ahead of the county’s June budget process will take some ballparking, Sorrells said. Then, he will need to hire those additional tutors and teachers amid a shortage already felt acutely in many of Tennessee’s urban and rural districts.

“We are doing the best we can with the information we have,” Sorrells said. “All those logistics are difficult.”

In the meantime, Sorrells said, Marshall County teachers are trying to give extra preparation time to third graders who need it ahead of the state assessment, the benchmark that will determine how they spend their summer and, potentially, their grade level going forward.

“I hate that it’s a snapshot of one day in time for our students,” Sorrells said. “I understand from the General Assembly standpoint, they are trying to do something about teaching kids how to read.” He added, “Everyone wants that. It’s just not that simple.”

The Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act, passed in 2021, affects third grade students this year who don’t reach proficiency levels on their state English Language Arts assessment. In 2021, 64 percent of Tennessee third graders fell into that category, an amount that exceeds 46,000 students.

School administrators across the state, as well as parents and teachers, are grappling with how to navigate the new state law meant to help students mitigate learning losses caused by COVID-19. While many education leaders see good intentions in the law and elements of meaningful support for elementary school students, they are advocating for changes before the law’s fast-approaching implementation deadlines.

I hate that it’s a snapshot of one day in time for our students. I understand from the General Assembly standpoint, they are trying to do something about teaching kids how to read. Everyone wants that. It's just not that simple.

– Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools

“A lot of our partners are very deeply concerned about the implementation of this and the implications for children, for third graders, for teachers, for elementary schools,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, executive director of nonprofit advocacy and policy organization Education Trust in Tennessee. 

Part of lawmakers’ motivation for passing new education policies in 2021 was to address the state’s literacy shortcomings and to bolster early education. Only 14 states scored below Tennessee on reading proficiency ratings on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress report card. Thirty-two percent of fourth graders in the U.S. scored ‘proficient’, with only 30 percent of Tennessee students meeting that benchmark

As lawmakers stressed during the 2021 special legislative session, those early years are critical to academic achievement. One in six children who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than proficient readers, according to a 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

“We have got to have higher standards,” State Sen. Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican, said. He is open to some changes to the law, but said the percentage of kids not at reading level has been too high for too long. “That is a situation that is unacceptable.”

Some lawmakers and education department officials have stressed the law passed in 2021 is more of an intervention tool than a retention measure, as it calls for several more supports before a student must repeat a grade. Students “approaching” expectations will be required to attend and demonstrate growth during a four- to six-week summer learning camp or receive tutoring throughout the next year. Third graders who score “below” expectations will have to do both. If those groups don’t meet those requirements, then they will be retained.

The law includes several other exemptions factoring in disabilities, whether a student speaks English as a second language, prior retentions and summer retest results. Parents of students “approaching” expectations can also pursue an appeal. 

But, many educators say the scope of the law is too broad and forecast there are likely to be students retained who would not be otherwise. They point to a range of potential issues from every income level: communication breakdowns with parents who move or change phone numbers, summer custody arrangements interfering with camp dates, planned trips for gathering immigration documents that cannot be rescheduled or long-planned summer vacation plans.

Sen. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, chair of the Senate Education Committee, supports the current law to hold back 3rd graders who don't meet state reading standards. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. John Lundberg, R-Bristol: “This situtation is unacceptable.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

And, students who receive the tutoring and attend summer camp could still face retention if they do not show “adequate growth” in fourth grade. They also must have 90 percent attendance rates at summer camps to meet the requirements.

“Are we really going to fail those students?” Clint Satterfield, Director of Trousdale County Schools, said at a legislative education sub-committee hearing in February. “We are going to lose sustainability over time when parents do everything that is asked of them and we still retain their students.”

Jeanne Barker, director of Lenoir City Schools, near Knoxville, asked lawmakers to consider the logistics of informing parents about scores and helping them through the retake and appeals process after the school year ends. 

The Tennessee Department of Education is forecasting schools will see some test data as early as May 19, the last day of classes for several districts, including Lenoir City Schools, Marshall County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools. The parent appeals process closes June 30 and final retention notifications will be sent July 14, two weeks before many districts begin.

“That is a very aggressive timeline,” Barker said. “By the time we get all of that back, we are well into the summer before we can actually do the work that is needed.”

Metro Nashville Public Schools has sent letters to third grade families to educate parents on what to expect and offered meetings with third grade families. The district is encouraging all third grade families to sign up for summer learning camps just in case, Metro Nashville Public Schools Chief of Academics and Schools Mason Bellamy said.

“Our goal is that we provide whatever services we can to a family so that we comply with the law and no child is retained that would not benefit from being retained,” Bellamy said. In a district with nearly 6,000 third graders, “there are going to be families affected that should not be.”

Barker also appealed to lawmakers about concerns she has for English language learners, which comprise 35 percent of her students. The law allows students who have had less than two years of English Language Arts instruction to be exempt, but it typically takes five to seven years for a student to read in their second language and pass tests, she said.

More than a dozen amendments to the law have been proposed during the current legislative session, several of which give more authority to the local education agencies on retention decisions. Other bills give more options to fourth graders who still don’t show proficiency or to students who score in the “approaching” category. 

Education Trust in Tennessee has recommended lawmakers narrow the scope of the bill to just those who score in the “below” expectations category and to exclude active English language learners from the retention requirements. In 2022, excluding the “approaching” students would have reduced the number of students impacted by more than half.

“If we could reduce this to the number of kids who are below basic, the most at-risk and then really concentrate our efforts on those families, those kids, that transportation, those supports, I think that is an easier lift and a more logical lift,” Pupo-Walker said. 

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, addressing the House of Representatives in April 2022. Chair of the House Education Administration Committee, White said plans for Hillsdale College to operate charter schools in Tennessee are "shattered." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, addressing the House of Representatives in April 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Rep. Mark White, who chairs the House Education Administration and Planning subcommittee, said many lawmakers are receptive to some changes to the law and they are seeking to consolidate some of the amendments filed. He is supportive of allowing students to demonstrate proficiency by answering enough answers correctly on a separate benchmark test, as well as allowing school officials to file appeals on behalf of parents and adding tutoring support for those retained in kindergarten through second grade. 

“We are trying to go back upstream, where we are not always talking about third grade retention, we’re talking about making sure we are correcting the problem upstream in kindergarten, first and second grade,” White said.

“We don’t have adequate staff right now”

Staffing the camps and tutoring ranks for what could be tens of thousands fourth grade students in Tennessee is another concern. The state had more than 1,000 vacancies in its teaching ranks in the 2020-2021 school year, with kindergarten through fifth grade showing the highest level of vacancies, according to the state’s data.

Tutoring ratios of 1 tutor to 3 students, twice a week, is required under the new law, a level of support that several education leaders have praised. Still, they are uncertain where they will find the additional tutors. 

“We don’t have adequate staff right now,” Sorrells said. 

School administrators  say the 3rd grade retention law could stress schools already reeling from a shortage of teachers, and could result in a reduction of resources in services for other grades. 

Last year, about 10,000 students attended Metro Nashville’s summer learning camp, a number larger than many Tennessee school districts. With enough teachers available and interested in picking up additional courses, the district was able to find the staff needed last year, but an influx of rising fourth grade students this year will be challenging, Bellamy said. And, tutoring presents different challenges, because teachers are already teaching full-time. Based on ballpark estimates, MNPS could have to move existing tutors to the fourth grade level to meet the law’s requirements, potentially impacting resources in other grade levels, he said.

“We’d probably still be short,” Bellamy said. “It’s going to require a significant reallocation of how we use our resources or a significant increase in the amount of people we are able to get to tutor — or a significant reduction in services to other grades to prevent these retentions. That’s not something we would want to see.”

To help districts find staff, the state allows districts to hire new teachers, teachers in training or, if necessary, those with a college degree who have gone through summer camp training. Tutors  can be teachers, teacher candidates, tutors or volunteers that have had “adequate” training, according to guidance from the state.

Then there is the question of covering costs. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federal assistance program, can cover up to 50 percent of tutoring costs, and other temporary federal funding tied to COVID has been put toward tutoring.

“The state has given every district some funding,” Bellamy said. “It’s certainly not enough to cover the needs of running a program like this.” 

Learning from other states

Tennessee is not alone in approving a literacy law with retention mandates. Florida pioneered a third grade retention law in 2003 and at least 16 other states have mandatory retention laws in place, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Research and data on retention laws show mixed results. Mississippi, which passed a reading retention law in 2013, saw significant gains in fourth grade reading levels in the past decade, with proficiency levels climbing to 31 percent in 2022 from 22 percent in 2011, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. Scores in eighth grade, however, remained largely flat over the same time period. 

A recent Boston University study showed Mississippi students repeating third grade achieved “substantially higher” English Language Arts scores in sixth grade, with particular gains shown for Black and Hispanic students.

“We are not where we need to be obviously, but we are so far from where we came,” Carey Wright, former Mississippi superintendent of education, said speaking to Tennessee lawmakers in February. 

Mississippi began with a retention policy that applied to the lowest scoring group of five levels, however, it raised its passing score in 2016, and implemented the new measure in 2018. That differs from Tennessee, which would require proficient scores immediately. 

Retention rates for third grade exceeded 8 percent in 2014 and fell each year to as low as 3 percent in 2016. When the score threshold increased, rates climbed to almost 10 percent.

In Florida, students have scored above national averages for more than a decade on the NAEP test. In 2022, 39 percent of fourth graders were proficient readers or higher, compared to 30 percent in Tennessee.  

A 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study focused on Florida found that those retained saw higher grades and boosted reaching achievement but those short term gains lost significance within five years and had no impact on graduation probability. 

Retention for elementary students sometimes makes sense, and educators and parents consider a host of factors when making decisions, including a student’s birth date, maturity and physical size, Bellamy said. Those decisions “are never easy” and should be made on an individual basis. Additional supports for students are welcomed aspects of the state law, but not the retention mandate, he said. 

“Some people need to attend high-dosage tutoring all year, too. I don’t disagree with that,” he said. “When you attach it to one test, taken at one point in time, and saying this lifelong consequence is going to be applied to that, I do feel like that is misguided.”

For both teachers and third grade students, the intense focus on the English Language Arts test, in what will be their first year of state assessments, brings with it a lot of pressure, Pupo-Walker said. 

“Without question, it created this pressure cooker situation in third-grade classrooms,” Pupo- Walker said. “The pressure on these third grade teachers to get these students past the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), I can’t even imagine what they are being asked to do in terms of test prep and all the things they’d rather be doing in a classroom besides test prep and talking about the test.”


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Jamie McGee
Jamie McGee

Jamie McGee covered economic issues for The Tennessean and prior to that, was a reporter for the Nashville Business Journal. Her stories have been featured regularly by USA Today, and she received a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant. She has written for Bloomberg News and The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and has a Masters in journalism from Columbia University.