Tennessee senator discusses third grade retention law at second annual Literacy Summit

Staff photo by Olivia Ross  / Tennessee Senator Bo Watson speaks to the audience. The 2022 Literacy Summit was held at the Collegedale Commons on September 8, 2022
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Tennessee Senator Bo Watson speaks to the audience. The 2022 Literacy Summit was held at the Collegedale Commons on September 8, 2022

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, hosted the second annual Literacy Summit in Collegedale, where he, state and education officials discussed changes to the Tennessee Literacy Success Act that went into effect this fall.

The conversation centered on perhaps the biggest change associated with the act -- a law that requires school districts to hold back third graders who do not score proficiently on the English language arts portion of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test.

Watson was joined by four other panelists: Yvette Stewart, director of elementary teaching & learning and K-12 literacy for Hamilton County Schools; Lisa Coons, chief academic officer for the Tennessee Department of Education; Deborah Reed, director of the Reading360 Research Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; and Aleah Guthrie, senior director of policy and government relations for Tennessee Score.

Based on Hamilton County's most recent Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results, 64% of third graders may be retained next year if their scores do not improve when they test again in spring.

"If we're truly going to execute this strategy, then we truly have to discipline ourselves to adhere to what the law is going to ask us to do," Watson told a crowd of about 100 people.

According to the law, a third grader who is approaching English language arts proficiency has the option to participate in a summer bridge program to achieve proficiency or receive high-dosage tutoring throughout their fourth-grade year.

A third grader who is well below English language arts proficiency must participate in both summer bridge programming and high-dosage tutoring in fourth grade.

High-dosage tutoring is one-on-one instruction in small groups at least three times a week, or for about 50 hours over a semester.

"The tutoring program isn't about helping kids with their homework," Watson said. "It is a focused effort on making sure that that child has the foundational skills to learn how to read."

For the most part, the funding for tutors will come from philanthropic community partners.

"I started out by saying that government can't do this alone," Watson said. "And, so, in the audience are a lot of philanthropic organizations who are hearing this discussion who are, I hope, appreciating the gravity of the situation. And I would hope that what we will begin to see is the philanthropic community leaning in."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County students can expect a personalized education, greater school security this year)

The state has allocated $4.5 million to United Way to serve approximately 3,500 children in need of tutoring. The Urban League of Chattanooga has also partnered with the district to provide tutoring services.

Through the state's new education funding formula, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act, districts will also receive additional funding for each third grader who needs tutoring.

"The taxpayers are providing funding to those nonprofit organizations to help supplement or augment our literacy program," Watson said in an interview following the panel.

Stewart said the Hamilton County school district is working to prepare third graders for Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing in the spring. High-dosage tutoring is already underway for the majority of schools, and all schools will have their programs running by the end of September, she said.

"The training that we've given teachers to really understand again, how to do this work well, is really paying dividends for us. We are seeing that," Stewart said in an interview following the panel discussion.

However, she added that it takes time for scores to change, and the district will face new challenges next fall should many third graders be held back.

"We've got to figure that out," she said. "I mean, this is new legislation. It's a new way of thinking about what do you do to support kids that are struggling or that need additional support. So, that's a conversation that we're having."

(READ MORE: The majority of tests taken by Hamilton County students show failing scores in one or more subjects)

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, attended the summit. She said that while she appreciates the state's efforts to raise literacy rates, legislation and reality don't often mix. She suggested that legislators consult more often with those who are at the forefront of educating Tennessee's students: teachers.

"What we're looking at next year is the potential that we will have overcrowded classrooms," Omarkhail said in an interview. "I just think there's a lot of moving parts that haven't moved into their place yet. And because every district in the state is unique, having a cookie-cutter program with no flexibility may hinder that."

Watson said the legislation was never meant to be a burden placed solely on schools and that the state is calling on organizations and community members to step up, though the law does not require it. He said the consequences of a child not learning to read are significant for adult society.

"The consequences are a lot greater for society than they are for teachers," he said. "The consequences are huge for workforce development, they're huge for economic community development. So the consequences of not doing this are much greater."

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

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