Nearly a fourth of Hamilton County third graders require reading help under retention law

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Molly O'Donnell, 10, writes on a worksheet at Battle Academy on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Hamilton County fared better than some other public schools in Tennessee in preparing third graders to proceed to fourth grade under the requirements of a new state law that emphasizes reading proficiency.

In Hamilton County, 77% of third graders are eligible to move up to fourth grade without the need for additional educational intervention following the release of testing data from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, according to a news release Monday from Hamilton County Schools.

Of the 3,488 third grade students in the district, 2,681 are eligible for grade level promotion either because of their literacy proficiency or for another reason, such as qualifying for an exemption because of a disability or because they are learning English as an additional language.

Out of the students who are eligible to move on to fourth grade, 40% are eligible based on their reading scores on the TCAP.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County teacher's petition against third grade retention law gains traction)

That leaves 807 students, or 23%, who did not achieve proficiency or qualify for an exemption and therefore will need to achieve an improved score on a TCAP retake, or they will need to attend summer school and/or receive intensive tutoring during their fourth grade year.

The outcome is the first under the new state law that drew praise and criticism for its effort to make sure students learned to read in third grade before advancing to fourth grade.

Tennessee released statewide numbers that were not comparable to the Hamilton County numbers because they did not separate out students who were exempt from the testing requirements.

The state also did not release numbers by county, to allow for comparisons, although some counties released data to parents and the media.

Knox County announced that 36% of students would need to retest or get extra help because they did not achieve reading proficiency or qualify for an exemption, according to 10News.

Metro Nashville Public Schools estimated 39% of third graders would need to retest or get the extra help, according to The Tennessean.

"The ability to read at grade level determines a student's success in the classroom and beyond, and we're encouraged that our strategic literacy investments have already resulted in historic gains across the state," Gov. Bill Lee said in a state news release. "As we continue our work to deliver strong reading skills to benefit every student, we're committed to giving families multiple pathways that will support student promotion and achievement."

Students who did not meet or exceed expectations can attend Hamilton County Schools' Summer Reach program, which is entirely free and will run from June 5 to June 30 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for elementary school. Students will receive free lunch every day, and transportation will be provided. Students will have to take a post-test at the program's end to demonstrate they have improved their literacy proficiency.

Additionally, students will be able to receive high-dosage tutoring during their fourth grade year, which entails instruction multiple times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes in a 1:3 teacher-to-student ratio.

Students who are approaching expectations on literacy proficiency can choose either the summer program or high-dosage tutoring while students who are below expectations are required to attend both the summer program and the high-dosage tutoring next year.

The goal of Summer Reach and the high-dosage tutoring is to improve students' literacy proficiency so that they do not have to be held back a year per state law.

"Early literacy is a foundation for student success, and we are committed to seeing every student learn," Hamilton County Superintendent Justin Robertson said in the district's news release. "In addition to classroom instruction, proven programs like Summer Reach and intensive literacy tutoring will provide the supports necessary to make sure this year's third-grade class is eligible and ready to move to fourth grade."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons criticized Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn in a statement issued Monday.

(READ MORE: Tennessee senator discusses third grade retention law at second annual Literacy Summit)

"The negative impact of Gov. Bill Lee and Commissioner Penny Schwinn's disastrous 'third grade retention law' is hitting home across Tennessee, turning families' plans and the educational futures of many Tennessee students upside-down," the statement said. "Local school officials and parents foresaw the impending disastrous effects of this law and formally asked the state to take corrective action. Gov. Lee and the GOP supermajority outright ignored these pleas and serious concerns by refusing to repeal or substantively amend the law before its enactment."