30% of Hamilton County Schools third graders may need summer literacy tutoring

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Teacher Elisabeth Baird hands out Lego bricks at Battle Academy for the Summer Reach program on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Families with third graders in Hamilton County Schools may want to hold off making summer vacation plans -- or at least wait until spring assessments are over.

To be promoted to fourth grade, third graders who do not score proficiently on the English language arts portion of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test will be required to take summer literacy tutoring in June.

And district officials predict that will include about 30% -- or more -- of third grade students.

The announcement came Saturday morning during the Board of Education's annual two-day retreat. The measure is to comply with the state's third grade retention law, which requires school districts to hold back students who aren't meeting grade-level literacy expectations.

According to the law, students can avoid being held back if they receive additional tutoring.

If a third grader is "approaching" English language arts proficiency, meaning they demonstrated partial ability to apply the tested concepts, they can participate in a summer tutoring program or receive high-dosage tutoring throughout fourth grade. High-dosage tutoring is defined as instruction received twice a week for a minimum of 30 minutes in a 1:3 teacher-to-student ratio.

If a third grader is "below" English language arts proficiency, meaning they demonstrated little ability to apply the tested concepts, they must participate in both summer programming and high-dosage tutoring in fourth grade.

Students who do not meet those requirements will be retained.

"First and foremost, our goal is that we want to ensure that as many third graders get promoted as possible," Breckan Duckworth, director of student acceleration at Hamilton County Schools, told board members Saturday. "We are not in the game of wanting to retain a bunch of these students. We want to promote as many of our students as possible, and we think that we have a pretty good strategy to make sure that happens."

Part of that effort will be requiring all students who have not met expectations -- students who are approaching proficiency and students who are well below proficiency -- in literacy to enroll in Summer Reach, the district's summer tutoring program. Students will have to demonstrate growth on the post-test, Duckworth said, adding that based on student performance in past years, she's not worried about students showing improvement.

In 2023, Summer Reach will run from June 5 to June 30, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday-Friday. The program is free to students, and transportation will be provided.

The state requires students have at least a 90% attendance rate. In Hamilton County, a student could only miss two of the 20 days of summer programming, Duckworth said.

"We know that that's going to be a little tricky," she said.

She said the district is working on an attendance policy with the state that would allow for an additional three excused absences, but parents must provide their own literacy training and submit documentation to prove it.

"So, if someone does have a one-week vacation, three excused, two unexcused, that is five days you could technically miss for summer programming and still be promoted to fourth grade," Duckworth said.

The law allows third graders who are approaching proficiency to retake the English language arts portion of the assessment. The re-testing window is scheduled for May 30 to June 9. However, Duckworth said that isn't a lot of time for improvement to occur.

"We are not going to be pushing and promoting for a bunch of kids to take a test just another month and a half after the first test," Duckworth said. "It doesn't give us enough time to actually provide interventions and provide additional support to kids."

First-quarter benchmark scores indicate that around 43% of third graders -- with the exception of English language learners and students with disabilities who are not subject to the law -- are not currently proficient in English language arts. Duckworth said she expects that percentage to improve to 30% by spring.

Board members said they aren't worried about those numbers -- yet.

"The first benchmark is assessing skills that they should know by the end of third grade," board member Joe Wingate, R-Chattanooga, said Saturday. "It's not what they should know by (the first quarter.)"

Board member Marco Perez, an independent from Signal Mountian, agreed and said using first-quarter benchmark results to determine how many students will need summer tutoring is like taking a calculus final on day one.

"That number doesn't frighten me as much as if we were after Christmas or at the third-quarter benchmark," Wingate said.

If last year's third grade English language arts TCAP scores are any prediction of this year's, approximately 60% of students may be spending June inside a classroom.

Intervening earlier

Third grade is the first year students take the state assessment and is also considered a particularly important milestone for literacy, when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Experts say those who aren't proficient will fall behind in all subjects, which -- in fourth grade and beyond -- require more textual analysis and abstract word comprehension.

Duckworth stressed that just because a student is not proficient, it doesn't mean they can't read words on a page.

"Keep in mind that when we're saying that a third of our students may need this extra tutoring because they're not proficient, we're not saying that our children can't read, right?" Duckworth said. "This is a high-level test."

Board Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent of Chattanooga, said it's often comprehension that is the biggest issue.

"A lot of (the test) is based on comprehension," Robinson said Saturday. "And even the highest-performing students do not comprehend what they read. And they can come from the highest socioeconomic households that have been working with them."

Board member Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountian, said literacy interventions must start immediately.

"I'm a bit unsettled at the strategy of waiting until the end of third grade to intervene when we know things are happening now," Black said.

Duckworth said the district is not waiting and is working to ramp up the current tutoring pipeline for all students in grades K-3.

That includes working with partner organizations like United Way and the Urban League, which have received federal funding to provide high-dosage literacy tutoring throughout the year.

The district is also collaborating with local colleges to recruit tutors.

Funding tutoring

In addition to attending Summer Reach, third graders who score below proficiency will be required to participate in high-dosage tutoring for the entirety of their fourth grade year.

The state's new education funding formula, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, allocates $8 million for fourth grade tutoring split between all school districts, about $300 per student.

For K-3 literacy support, the state has allocated $145 million, about $500 per student.

Superintendent Justin Robertson said that isn't enough. Last year alone, the district spent around $1,300 per student, or $8 million, on tutoring and Summer Reach.

"There's this funding gap," Robertson said Saturday. "If we want to do this well, and if we want to say we're not just worried about third graders, but we're worried about first graders, second graders, we're worried about the seventh graders, the funding that is in the TISA formula will not support what we need to do."

The new formula will provide an added $45 million to next year's budget, but Robertson said given the tutoring needs, that money won't go far.

"I'm telling you all that money is going to go fast if we want to do even just this piece well," he told board members.

He added the district is using some of its COVID-19 relief dollars to fund tutoring efforts.

Duckworth said she doesn't think the district will hold back significantly more third graders in 2023.

"The law is not going to have us retaining a ton more students in Hamilton County Schools," Duckworth said. "What the law is going to do is have us tutoring a ton more students in Hamilton County Schools."

In the upcoming weeks, families will receive postcards and other communications containing more information on the law as well as Summer Reach programming.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.