KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knox County Board of Education met Wednesday for its regular meeting to vote on several policy changes ahead of the 2022-23 school year, including passing one on first reading that would require third-grade students to meet new state testing requirements in the English language portion to advance to the fourth grade.
The proposed local policy was spurred after Tennessee lawmakers passed a law in January 2021 strengthening third-grade retention requirements to include a minimum reading assessment on state standardized testing during a special session over learning loss.
To advance past the third grade, students must score at least "on track" on the English language arts portion of the end-of-year TCAP tests. If they do not meet that benchmark, they would have three options to retest based on the current state law.
Knox County Schools' Chief Academic Officer Jon Rysewyk said the district's proficiency rate is typically about 40 percent.
"Which is high for large districts in Tennessee," he said.
This means only 40 percent of students are on grade level. If a new policy is passed and students stay at that level, 60% might have to repeat a grade.
"The students are coming off about an 18 month interruption in their instruction and that's whether they were virtual or not virtual or, you know, dealing with the pandemic," Rysewyk said.
Last year's statewide TCAP scores mostly reflected that. Data showed three in ten Tennessee students are meeting grade level expectations in English language arts.
If a student doesn't meet the state standard, they could retest to meet the benchmark before the school year ends. If they can't pass by the time the school year ends, then they could also attend a six-week learning loss bridge camp over the summer. At this camp, they would need to have at least a 90% attendance rate and would have to demonstrate English language proficiency growth on the test at the end of the camp.
If not, then parents could also agree to have their child advance to the fourth grade with participation in the Tennessee Accelerated Literacy and Learning Corps. Students would receive English tutoring and be retested. If they do not meet state standards by the end of the fourth grade, they would then be held back.
If the new policy is passed, schools will also need to identify students who may be at risk of staying in the third grade by February 1, 2023. Knox County Schools identified seven factors to identify students, which include their previous performance, the likelihood of success with more difficult material, their attendance record and their "social and emotional maturity."
If a student is identified as being at risk for staying in third grade, the school will notify their parent or guardian within 15 days and develop a plan to help the student.
Rysewyk said the new local policy is intended to ensure the school system is prepared for the state law and parents are given plenty of notice about it.
He said the new state rule does not apply for students with special needs who have not received at least two years of English language intervention by the time they take their TCAP tests.
Knox County Education Association President Paula Hancock said boosting state testing scores isn't going to happen over night.
"We should probably do far more investment in pre-k programs so that our students will be able to stand a chance at being successful at every grade as they move forward," Hancock said.
She also said teachers can't be the only ones to take on the extra weight.
"Teachers are overwhelmed. They're exhausted and we have many teachers who are leaving the profession all together," she said.
The BOE will meet again Jan. 5 for its next regular session to finalize the new policy.