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'Don't fix it if it isn't broken' | Two state bills seek to change third-grade retention law

Representatives David Hawk (R - Greene Co.) and Ron Travis (R - Dayton) both proposed bills that would restore decision-making to the schools, among other changes.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Two state lawmakers filed back-to-back bills to change a law that has the potential to hold a large portion of third-graders back across Tennessee.

In March of 2021, lawmakers passed § TCA 49-6-3115. It requires students who don't score well on a standardized test to either repeat the third grade, go to summer school or attend tutoring sessions in the fourth grade. However, this law has caused worry in classrooms and homes across the state.

"We realized that, 'Wow, this affects almost 80% of our third graders.' So, under as this law is written, that means that like 80% of our third graders would get retained," said Liv Cook

She is a special education teacher who teaches students between third grade and fifth grade in McMinn County. She said the original law flew under the radar, with many educators not fully understanding its effects.

"It almost felt like it like happened in the night, almost like it happened without a lot of us realizing really what was going on," Cook said.

Cook said many students she works with in McMinn County are disadvantaged youth. For some, Cook said she isn't sure where they sleep at night, or where they got their last meal.

"I teach in an area that also has a very high level of poverty, a tentative Title One school. So what that means is that most of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. I also teach in an area with a high level of traumas," Cook said.

She also said those students, due to circumstances out of their control, are likely to score lower on standardized tests, like the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). 

Liv Cook is a member of the SOCM, the Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment group. They meet monthly to discuss a number of topics, including a statewide public education campaign. Members of the SOCM are from across the state. There are members from the major cities, but small counties are represented, too.

"We got hundreds and hundreds of people that are now talking about public education and care about it," Cook said. 

SOCM said their group helped more than 700 people in Tennessee send letters to the legislature requesting to amend § TCA 49-6-3115.

Those letters joined more than a dozen school districts that submitted resolutions to change the controversial third-grade retention law. Some of those school districts include Alcoa, Anderson County, Blount County, Knox County,  McMinn County and others.

Angel Jones, the mom of a third grader in Knox County Schools, did not write a letter to the legislature. Instead, she wrote to the Knox County Board of Education to convince them to submit a resolution. She was one of several who did so.

"I would appreciate it if the law was just taken off completely. The way we had it was fine. Don't fix it if it ain't broke, right? So, that's kind of how I view it. It just needs to be gone," Jones said.

Jones said her daughter, Teddy, is bright. She is a member of the student council, a budding artist and a lover of every school subject. However, the pressure of a test score would still be overwhelming.

"I've been trying to keep all it away from her. She would probably break down and cry," Jones said. "You either do really well or you're not gonna do well at all."

Jones said her daughter can get easily anxious. At her age, school is mostly about seeing her friends. If Teddy doesn't pass the test, she may be separated from them by being retained a grade.

"That's not fair to a kid, to have that pressure. If you don't pass this one test, you're gonna fail. It doesn't matter, all the work that you've put in, everything you've done throughout the year, none of it matters. But this one test," Jones said.

That's where state representatives David Hawk (R - Greene Co.) and Ron Travis (R - Dayton) come in. They both proposed bills that would restore decision-making to the schools.

"I'm going to suggest that we use the local school districts as the final decision maker on whether these students should be retained or not," Hawk said.

The only difference between the two bills is the severity of the changes.

Hawk wants to keep the summer school or tutoring requirement for students who do not reach proficiency levels on the TCAP.

"I'm keeping in place the summer reading camps as well as the high-intensity tutoring that a child could get in fourth grade ... should they do poorly on the TCAP test, I want to make sure that all of our kids have all the instructional tools they need to be successful," Hawk said.

Travis' bill encompasses the portion about restoring the decision-making process to the schools. However,  if a TCAP score indicates a child is "approaching" or "below" grade level in the ELA section, the bill suggests the school must notify parents with a recommendation of retention, and any alternatives.  It cuts out a section of the law that bases retention solely on the ELA TCAP test score.

Both lawmakers hope their bills can help ease the worry of some districts, and parents.

"The power belongs in the hands of the teachers and of the parents or guardians who know these kids," Jones said.

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