Latest benchmark scores show just 38% of Hamilton County third graders are proficient in English

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Teacher Elisabeth Baird hands out Lego bricks June 7 at Battle Academy for the Summer Reach program. Summer programs will be instrumental for students who do not reach reading proficiency in third grade.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Teacher Elisabeth Baird hands out Lego bricks June 7 at Battle Academy for the Summer Reach program. Summer programs will be instrumental for students who do not reach reading proficiency in third grade.

While Tennessee legislators are poised to revisit a law requiring students to learn to read in third grade or risk being held back, the Hamilton County school district's summer tutoring plans are still well underway.

The law, which took effect in the 2022–23 school year, requires third graders who do not score proficiently on the English language arts portion of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program to receive additional tutoring or risk retention.

According to the district's latest benchmark scores, 62% of third graders are not yet proficient in English language arts.

That percentage includes students with disabilities, English language learners and those who have already been retained -- students otherwise exempt from the retention law.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press asked district officials for the proficiency rate among students for whom the law applies, but officials would not disclose the exact numbers.

"Our benchmark assessments are formative, meaning we use them to determine what students' gaps are and to change instruction accordingly," district spokesman Steve Doremus said in an email. "They have alignment to TCAP, but they are not just markers towards TCAP for us. Additionally, determining exemption percentages under the third grade retention law would involve speculation at this point, and we are not comfortable discussing those numbers at this time."

However, the district did release that information for the first-quarter benchmarks.

At that time, 43% of third graders, excluding English language learners and students with disabilities, were not proficient.

Between the first- and second-quarter benchmarks, proficiency rates increased by 1 percentage point: 37% to 38%.

"I think the biggest thing to ease the mind of parents is that we do not see this law requiring us to retain more students," Breckan Duckworth, director of student acceleration at Hamilton County Schools, said in a phone call. "We don't anticipate having a bunch of students repeat that third grade."

The law does mean districts must provide third graders with additional help, she said.

"The good news is, is this law is requiring that these kids get extra support, which I do think is something that's needed," Duckworth said.

Duckworth stressed that English language arts benchmark testing is unique compared to other subjects because it assesses concepts meant for students to master by the end of the school year.

"Math assessments and the science and social studies (tests), they actually only assess on the standards that have already been taught," Duckworth said.

That is because literacy is complex, she said. In subjects such as math, skills such as addition or subtraction can be isolated. But teaching literacy is all-encompassing.

"A lot of times those standards are being taught in every text throughout the school year, as opposed to (teaching) the author's perspective in, say, February," Duckworth said. "If I go read a newspaper article, I don't pick it up and say, 'OK, for this article, I'm only going to read it this time to look for the structure that the author uses.' No, you don't do that. You look for multiple things, meaning you hit multiple standards, but it also means that it takes longer in the school year for a child to master those standards with different types of texts."

She said benchmark testing helps teachers pinpoint where students need more instruction. And while it may help give the district an idea of how students might perform on the state assessment in spring, the most improvement will occur over the next several months.

Though the majority of students will not be held back if they complete the tutoring requirements, the retention law has received widespread criticism.

"Holding children back, retaining them, is not going to get us to where we need to go," Edna Varner, senior adviser of leading and learning for the Public Education Foundation, said during a virtual forum over the weekend hosted by the NAACP of Chattanooga. "Nobody wants to keep passing kids on who can't read, but retaining them isn't the solution."

In September, Cortney Fugate, a Hamilton County teacher, launched a petition calling on Tennessee legislators to reconsider the law. It has since amassed more than 2,500 signatures.

Fugate went before the Hamilton County Schools Board of Education in December to ask for a resolution urging the Tennessee General Assembly to amend the third grade retention law.

"Parents, teachers and students in Hamilton County need to know that our school board supports students and not the new retention law," Fugate told board members.

The board has not yet taken any action on the matter.

In Hamilton County, students who are approaching proficiency and students who are well below proficiency literacy will be required 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.

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

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327.

Upcoming Events