Opinion: Exemptions will allow 37% of third graders to move up to fourth grade

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / An eighth grader works on a writing exercise in a Dalewood Middle School reading and language arts class.

The good news for Hamilton County Schools is that 40% of its third graders are reading at or above grade level, up 4% from 2022, and can move up to fourth grade.

The not-so-good news, according to preliminary Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) scores, is that 23% of district third graders need additional educational intervention before it's determined whether they can move up.

But perhaps the most interesting news is that the remaining 37% of third graders will move up to fourth grade — with exemptions. They either have a disability or suspected disability that affects reading, they have been previously held back, or they have less than two years of instruction in English language arts, according to a district news release.

It's the last group that concerns us the most. Clearly, for one reason or another, they have trouble with their English language arts skills. But they're not being held back. We feel for their fourth grade teachers.

Back to the good news. The 40% who will move up a grade based on their TCAP scores means the county is on par with the state average, which increased more than four percentage points to 40% on this year's state tests. That marks the highest percentage of third grade students who met or exceeded proficiency in English language arts statewide in at least six years.

If the final district score is the same as the preliminary one, it will mean county third graders also had the district's best score in recent years.

The district's 77% who will advance (including the 37% based on exceptions), puts the county ahead of the school systems in two of the three largest cities in the state, Metro Nashville (61% advance) and Knox County (Knoxville) (64% advance). Memphis-Shelby County officials said they would not release preliminary scores but would let the state release the finalized data later this year.

Indeed, the district number even bettered that of the state's top-scoring Williamson County, where 72% of its students either met or exceeded expectations on the reading test. But it was unclear whether that number included the percentage of students who received exemptions.

"Exemption decisions will be dealt with at the local level, in compliance with the law," Department of Education spokesman Brian Blackley told Chalkbeat.

Shannon Moody, chief strategy officer for the Hamilton County Schools, said in an email to this page Tuesday that "exemption decisions are made on an individual student basis" and "must have appropriate data supporting the decision."

It is unclear why the district's exemptions number is so high, and a request to the state Department of Education for an explanation as to what leeway districts have in determining exemptions was not answered by press time.

Moody said the district did not plan to provide a school breakdown of the preliminary scores but that they would be provided at the school level when the state releases them during the summer.

In any case, 23% of Hamilton County public school third graders — 807 students — who did not achieve proficiency on the reading test will have to achieve an improved score on a TCAP retest, or they will need to attend summer school and/or receive intensive tutoring during their fourth grade year.

Students, according to the state Department of Education, have from now through June 5 to retake the test. Results will be returned within 48 hours.

Those who did not meet or exceed proficiency on the preliminary TCAP test or retest, but were approaching proficiency, can choose either the summer program or tutoring during fourth grade. Students who are below proficiency are required to attend both the summer program and the tutoring next year.

Students in the free summer program must have at least 90% attendance and must improve on their end-of-program literacy test to advance to fourth grade.

All of this end-of-year upheaval is a result of a 2021 state law passed following the pandemic that saw dramatic drops on state assessment tests, including in the vital area of English language arts.

Proponents say dramatic action was necessary to save a cohort of students — this year's third graders were finishing kindergarten when the pandemic shut down schools in 2020 — from being dragged down in their academic performance across the board — and for years to come — because of their inability to read proficiently.

Critics say making an initial retention decision based on one test is unfair and that forcing decisions about retesting, summer school or tutoring a few days before the end of school is asking too much of parents and students.

We lean to the need for dramatic action not only for students who may have been affected by the pandemic but for all of those in the future. The slow increase in state scores over time indicates that whatever reading strategies have been in place haven't been working as well as they should have.

If the controversial state law — revised this year — prompted the state Department of Education and individual districts to seek innovative or out-of-the-box strategies to improve reading scores so more students would not be held back, all the better for every student.