School Board seeks state authority to make retention decisions for third-grade students

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By Bill Short

The Millington School Board has adopted a resolution seeking an amendment to state law that would allow districts to make retention decisions for third-grade students.

Board members took the action during their Oct. 4 regular monthly meeting on a motion offered by Cody Childress and seconded by Larry Jackson.

The motion was passed by four affirmative votes, with Marlon Evans, Chairman Chris Denson and Vice Chairman Barbara Halliburton absent.

The resolution asks the Tennessee General Assembly to amend Chapter 1 of the Public Acts of 2021 to include a provision allowing school districts to make retention decisions based on district data that demonstrate third-grade students’ understanding of English Language Arts.

Public Chapter 1 states that, beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, third-grade students will not be promoted to the next grade level unless they have achieved a performance level rating of “on track” or “mastered” on the ELA portion of the most recent Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test.

But the Chapter also states that third-grade students who achieve an ELA rating of “below” on the TCAP may be promoted if they:

(a) are English language learners who have received less than two years of ELA instruction;

(b) were previously retained in any of the grades K-3;

(c) are retested before the beginning of the next school year and score proficient in ELA;

(d) attend a “learning loss bridge camp” before the start of the upcoming school year, maintain a 90-percent attendance rate at the camp; and

(e) are assigned a tutor through the Tennessee Accelerating Literacy and Learning Corps for the entire upcoming school year.

Along with these requirements, third-grade students who achieve an ELA rating of “approaching” may be promoted if their performance on the “post-test” at the end of the camp demonstrates “adequate growth” as determined by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The board’s resolution notes that, in states that have adopted legislation regarding the retention of third-grade students, the educational outcomes for those who have been retained have been “mixed.”

One reported negative outcome was that retention laws can have “adverse effects” on at-risk students and those with disabilities.

The resolution also notes that, other than Tennessee, “most if not all” of the states that have adopted such legislation have included a provision that allows school districts to advance students who were not proficient in ELA, but who showed progress based on district data that demonstrate an understanding via “alternative knowledge assessments.”

The resolution contends that Tennessee’s failure to give its school districts such discretion “discriminates” against students who demonstrate that understanding through those assessments, but who might not perform well on standardized tests.

James “Bo” Griffin, superintendent of Millington Municipal Schools, said no current data indicate that holding students back in the third grade benefits them in any way.

He also said the resolution is designed to remind “the powers that be in Nashville” that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over.

“It’s even worse now,” Griffin noted, “because of what we’ve had to do with contact tracing and students being in and outside the classroom. Many of these students in the third grade have not been in school for the last year and a half.”

He said the state legislature and state Department of Education need to “really give great thought” before moving forward with the third-grade retention policies they have in mind.

When Childress asked if third-grade students are the only ones who would be held back, Griffin said that is the state’s “line in the sand, so to speak.”

The superintendent noted that the state’s retention policies are intended to get the students “caught up quickly” to the reading level where they should be.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve got a lot of ground to make up,” Childress acknowledged. “The whole country does. But I don’t think it’s fair to put it on the back of a third-grader.”

Griffin agreed and said the state is using a test that does not even evaluate the students’ reading levels.

“I’ve been very adamant about this,” he noted, “like several other superintendents across the state, because it just doesn’t work. It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to test you on apples, but all the questions are about oranges.’”

Griffin also said some of the children in the Millington Primary School this fall did not know their last names. 

“They were scared to death to walk into a cafeteria,” he noted, “because they’ve never been there in their life. They’ve never been asked to sit in a classroom all day long.”

He acknowledged that, normally, students enrolled in Pre-K through kindergarten “progressively” learn these things. But because of the pandemic, these children have not been given that chance.

Although the state has expressed regret that the students “missed all this,” Griffin said, it has decided that they need to be in school right now.

“That’s not fair to our educators,” he contended, “and it’s definitely not fair to our children for them to say that.”

He also said the fact that a third-grade student is not reading at that level does not mean he or she cannot be successful and be promoted. He noted that the district has already shown that with its learning loss camp last summer.

Griffin called that another way to remind the state that the best way to educate a child is to listen to the experts.

“I think our teachers are the best ones in that,” he concluded. “We need to listen to what they’re saying and support them in every way we can.”

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