State-Mandated Since 2021, the Third Grade Retention Law Has Tennessee State Legislators and Parents Calling for a Change

Lawmakers and parents are increasingly questioning Tennessee’s third-grade retention law. While Tennessee has long had legislation in place allowing districts the ability to retain third-grade students who did not score “proficient” on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test, the previous law left the decision up to local districts. Legislation passed during 2021’s Special Session took that decision out of local districts’ hands and made it state-mandated. A move that state lawmakers are now openly questioning.

At a recent Government Operations Committee meeting, lawmakers raised questions about the law during a rules review. State procedure empowers the State Board of Education to craft rules governing education policy created by the General Assembly. Those rules must again be approved by legislators through the rulemaking process. This is often quick and perfunctory, inspiring little discussion.  In this case, lawmakers had plenty to say.

State Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) called the law “damaging to children”, alerting her fellow lawmakers that “approaching proficiency” does not equate to “not reading on grade level.  While recognizing that the law was already in place and that they were simply discussing the rules of governance, she could not in “clear conscience pass up an opportunity to speak against the law.”

Referring to current students as “COVID babies,” while acknowledging their struggles, State Senator Page Walley (R-Bolivar) told committee members, “I have not received inquiries about any issue, since we were out of session, more so than this one. From parents, teachers, and administrators, that just feel like we may be overstepping with asking that this be done in this manner rather than allowing locally elected leaders in concert with the department to make these very excruciating decisions”.

Walley acknowledged the seriousness of children failing to learn to read proficiently, but he struggles to accept that this retention strategy is the best strategy, saying, “I am really uncomfortable with the idea that this is the best way. I don’t know the best way and I’ll confess it. I don’t think this is it. I think it has to be more in concert with deeper discussions at the local level, and greater flexibility.” Despite supporting the bill in session, he now recognizes that lawmakers may not have been thoughtful enough in creating the law, and can’t support it as it stands.

Echoing Walley’s sentiment, Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) reminded committee members that she had voted against the bill in session, calling it a “simple solution to a complex problem.” Bowling raised further concerns about the methodology being utilized to teach reading as opposed to children’s inability to learn to read.

Tennessee Department of Education’s (TDOE) Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons responded, outlining revisions made during the past year to the current methodology. This includes extensive training for teachers in the use of phonetics as a teaching tool, an increased focus on foundational skills and high-quality materials, and the creation of a state-mandated universal screener that would aid in the early identification of possible student challenges.

She further illustrated how the law provides exemptions for students who have a disability, are ELA students, and have a suspected reading disability.  Those students who score “approaching proficiency” on TCAP can avoid retention by either taking a retake at the end of the year and passing, enrolling in a summer program and attending 90% of sessions, or enrolling in a state-funded tutoring program for their fourth-grade year. Those students who are not considered “on track” must do both tutoring and summer school.

As outlined by Lisa Coons the law works to ensure that struggling readers receive the services needed in order to become proficient readers.

In response to lawmakers’ reticence, State Board of Education representative Nathan James spoke to remind them that legislation was already in place and that they were just working on governance rules. Failure to pass the rules would mean the law was in place, but the appeals process would not be.

Representative Mark Cochran (R-Englewood), called for the vote while acknowledging that the law wasn’t perfect, but called it a good start and offered that if lawmakers don’t like the law they would have an opportunity to make changes next session.

The motion was passed by House members with an 8-2 voice vote, in the Senate the vote was split with Walley, Bowling, and Paul Rose (R-Tipton) voting “nay.” The rule goes out pursuant to House approval, but can still be amended if any member desires.

Tennessee parents, voice many of the same concerns raised by state legislators. Questions and concerns abound as implementation approaches.

Kelley Peters, a parent of a kindergartener enrolled in MNPS, tells The Tennessee Star, “I don’t believe lawmakers realize the full implications of the law they created. Tutors are already difficult to find so when it becomes a requirement to be tutored or attend summer school to pass on to 4th grade we’re going to have a problem with classroom space that will grow every single year. Parents won’t be able to afford or find a tutor or can’t make summer school work and will be forced to hold their child back. Next year we’ll see 3rd-grade classrooms ballooning to 30-50 students dependent on the district, which will require more teachers for that grade level, but will there be room for adding more to keep classes small?’

As a grandmother who has grandchildren in several Tennessee school districts, Gracie King texted to The Star, “If you’re waiting until 3rd grade, you are already behind the 8-ball. You have placed that child at a great disadvantage for everything they are to learn that 3rd-grade year. 3rd-grade retention is in poor service to students, and their future learning”.

It’s a sentiment that aligns with the thoughts of House Education Chair Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), who is exploring making state-sponsored summer camps and tutoring options available for all students from kindergarten through 4th grade.

All parties are aligned in the goal of increasing the reading proficiency of  Tennessee’s children, but disagreements remain on how best to bring that about.

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TC Weber is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. He also writes the blog Dad Gone Wild. Follow TC on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected] He’s the proud parent of two public school children and the spouse of a public school teacher.


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8 Thoughts to “State-Mandated Since 2021, the Third Grade Retention Law Has Tennessee State Legislators and Parents Calling for a Change”

  1. Jay

    Public schools= disaster.

  2. JRin

    SINCE 2021?
    Do you mean it’s been in effect for only ONE year?

  3. Kendra Tilley

    The best thing a parent can do if they want truly educated children is to get them out of this corrupt federal indoctrination system. TN and every other state has sold out our children for unconstitutional federal education money. If you want to you will, if not you will find an excuse.

  4. Karen Bracken

    It is far more harmful to our children to pass them beyond 3rd grade when they cannot read. Perhaps we should look at stricter certification laws for our teachers in order to get better education results. And while we are at it we need to look at Florida and what they did to get rid of Common Core instead of just moving around the standard schematic and changing the name like Tennessee did. We need to stop coddling our children. If they are to be successful in life the foundation for success is the ability to read, comprehend what you read and foster a love of reading. These legislators are staring to sound like leftist liberals that care more about feel good crap instead of accountability and holding our children and teachers to a higher standard. It is time to end the deliberate dumbing down of our children that has been taking place for decades.

  5. JRin

    Translation: ” These children are making our teachers look bad. Just go ahead and promote them. It’s not like they’ll ever NEED to be literate.”

    1. Joe Blow

      JRin – It could not have been said better. Thank you!

    2. Sylvia

      JRin: Agree with your translation. Horrors, could Dr. Arn have been right?

  6. Randy

    Leaving this decision with the folks that continue to advance children beyond their known academic ability is what got us here is it not?. I have watched the dumbing down of America to the point of absurdity. Knox County School Board discussed this issue at length. I was not the least bit encouraged that the local organization can or will do anything to solve this problem. Their focus was on new opportunities to ask for more money for more potential social programing. Why not utilize the programs already in place?