State legislators are considering changes to the third grade retention law that will take effect next year, mulling new learning support for early grades and a minimum age to begin kindergarten.
Based on last year’s test results, 73% of MNPS third graders could face retention — just 27.4% of MNPS third graders met or exceeded proficiency requirements on tests last spring. MNPS was the last school district in the state to reopen for in-person learning in 2021.
Lawmakers passed the third grade retention law during a special education-focused legislative session in 2021. It requires third graders who fail to “meet” or “exceed expectations” on the spring TCAP test to repeat the grade. Students can avoid retention by attending summer school or tutoring programs. English language learners and those who have already been held back a grade are not impacted.
Culleoka Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky, chairman of the House Education Instruction subcommittee, says the legislature should require proficiency and supports, like tutoring and summer school, before third grade to ensure students are set up for success at the third grade cutoff.
“We need to make sure that we're getting to the point that if a student fails the third grade TCAP test, we’re shocked because we probably missed a learning disability,” Cepicky told Main Street Nashville.
He also says he’s open to extending the deadline for implementing the third grade retention law — which will impact third graders moving to fourth grade this fall.
“I think we need to look at it, not to erase that line in the sand, but to make sure we have all of the proper supports all the way back into kindergarten,” he said. “Would it be better for us to roll this one year, make sure we pass legislation to increase all the supports so that going forward, we are 2 to 2 ½ years away from COVID to where our teachers have had the opportunity of two years in the classroom to get our kids back on track?”
Third grade is an important transition year — after third grade, students move from learning to read to reading to learn. Without successful reading skills, the student may not be able to keep up well.
Cepicky says he’s open to changing the minimum age to begin kindergarten. Currently, Tennessee children may enter kindergarten if they turn 5 years old before Aug. 15 and must enroll in school no later than the beginning of the academic year following the child’s sixth birthday.
Starting kindergarten later could help students have the maturity and development to be more successful, he says. More than 80% of students testing on grade level are students who started kindergarten later, according to Cepicky.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton says he is willing to consider raising the minimum age for kindergarten.
“Are we starting our kids too early in school? Maybe we need to have them a bit older than what is required right now,” he says.
Sexton says the legislature may expand measures of third grade proficiency to include benchmark tests administered throughout the year and not the TCAP test alone, as the law stands now, so “one bad day” doesn’t throw a student off track.
“I don’t think you can continue to go year after year and not have some accountability,” Sexton said.
Gov. Bill Lee says he’s willing to look at changes proposed by the legislature, but, he says, “I like the law as it is.”
“I think one of the worst things we can do is move a child from third to fourth grade if they can't read,” Lee told reporters on Friday. “The statistics show and evidence shows that that's a very bad move for children that ends up, in the long term, being very harmful to them.”
Sean Braisted, a spokesman for Metro Nashville Public Schools, told Main Street Nashville in August that the district does not believe the policy is “pedagogically sound or a research-based method for improving student academic and social-emotional outcomes and long-term success.”
The district has since sent letters to notify families of third graders to inform them of the law and steps required to comply. MNPS has encouraged parents to sign up for Promising Scholars, the district’s summer enrichment program.
Third graders in Middle Tennessee districts met or exceeded ELA proficiency standards on the TCAP exam at the following rates:
- Williamson County Schools – 66.1%
- Franklin Special School District – 55.9%
- Wilson County Schools – 47.9%
- Sumner County Schools – 44.8%
- Murfreesboro City Schools – 40.6%
- Montgomery County Schools – 40%
- Rutherford County Schools – 39.3%
- Dickson County Schools – 36.9%
- Lebanon City Schools – 36.6%
- Maury County Schools – 32.9%
- Metro Nashville Public Schools – 27.4%
- Robertson County Schools – 27%