Tennessee’s 3rd-grade reading test scores rise and fall in a pattern

Lawmakers raised the stakes with this year’s test because those deemed “not proficient” must attend summer school. 

By: - May 24, 2023 6:00 am
Warner Elementary School in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Warner Elementary School in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

During any given year over the last decade, at least half of Tennessee third graders were deemed not proficient in reading, according to data from the  Department of Education.

Starting in 2011, Tennessee lawmakers tried to address this problem by passing legislation to allow local districts to hold back students who didn’t pass the third-grade standardized reading test. 

But in 2021, Republican lawmakers and the Department of Education spearheaded an effort to change the law, giving the state authority to retain students or require them to go to summer school if they don’t pass the exam.

This raised the stakes for 2023’s  standardized testing — which are the first held under the new standard — drawing criticism and concern from parents, teachers and schools. 

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, said using the state’s reading test as the benchmark for moving onto the fourth grade was “a whole different animal” than what was previously done.

“We need to be using this more as a benchmark and doing more realistic testing,” Bowman said. “If you look at usually 15 years of data, it’s like your heartbeat. It goes up, and it goes down, goes up, then it goes down.”

Education officials use the third-grade reading tests as a benchmark for learning because studies show it’s around that grade if a student can’t read that they are more likely to fall behind and drop out before graduating high school.

The high mark for third-grade reading occurred in 2013 when 50% of third-grade students passed the state test, with a low mark of 68% who didn’t pass in 2021 — the year following pandemic school closures.

Around 60% of third graders didn’t pass the test this year, an improvement year over year. 

Republicans point to the pandemic spike caused by school closures as the reason for the change.

“We went up 4.3% (from last year),” said Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, and Senate Education Chairman. “It shows that we’re going in the right direction. I also look at that and go, 60% of our folks are not proficient. That’s not acceptable.”

Democrats criticized the testing as flawed because it would hold back too many students and burden school districts.

“There are so many student interventions we could be supporting to improve reading comprehension,” Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said in statement. “High-stakes testing, with the threat of failing third grade, is not one of them.”

The concerns from school districts are rooted in the turnaround time between the revealing of test scores and the potential start of summer school. 

The Department of Education began giving out test scores Friday, which leaves a short time frame if students want to retake the test. 

“A continual problem with our Department of Education is the implementation of new plans,” Bowman said. 



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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.