Opinion: Third grade students promoted after summer reading camp will have to show improvement in fourth grade or risk being held back

Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross / Fourth grade teacher Abbey Mulkey sorts through books last month in preparation for the first day of school at Battle Academy.

And now, as famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story ... about Tennessee's third grade reading law.

You'll recall, when last we left the public school third graders who were in danger of not being promoted to fourth grade this fall because of their reading skills, many were attending a summer camp.

The law specifies that if those who scored "below" or "approaching" proficiency on the English language arts portion of the spring Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test took the summer camp, demonstrated adequate growth (defined by the State Board of Education as 4%) on the post-test and had 90% attendance rate at the camp, they could be promoted.

State numbers show that 24,907 third graders across the state — not including those whose parents successfully appealed their child's score or the students who chose a TCAP retake and scored high enough to be promoted — were eligible for the summer camp route. Of those, 8,592 students took the end-of-camp test, and 2,055 (23.9%) demonstrated the required 4% growth.

Overall, then, the summer camp paved the way to promotion for 2,055 (8.3%) of the 24,907 students eligible to take it.

However the 2021 Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act provides that the remaining 76.1% of those who took the end-of-camp test but did not show 4% growth can be promoted if they had a 90% attendance rate at the camp and agree to be assigned a tutor for the entirety of the 2023-2024 school year.

Commissioner of Education Lizzette Reynolds Gonzalez, in the news release accompanying the information about summer camp results, did not characterize the numbers but said the work would go on.

"Thousands of third grade students across the state participated in summer learning camps to catch up, accelerate their learning, and benefit from additional academic support over the summer," she said. "As our students have begun a new school year, we will continue focusing on the proven interventions that are working to set all our students on a path to success."

Now, what has been little publicized, if at all, throughout the run-up to the angst about how many third graders would be promoted, retested or go to camp is what happens in fourth grade.

It turns out that all of those students who didn't score proficient on the English language arts TCAP test in the third grade are on the clock again. That is, if they don't show adequate growth on the fourth grade portion of the subject on their TCAP test, they will not be promoted to fifth grade.

And this time, there is no retake, no summer camp (with eligibility for promotion) and no threat of a fifth grade tutor being assigned to the student. Without an exemption (assuming they are available like they were for many thousands of third graders), they will be retained in fourth grade.

What's more, at this time there is no definition from the State Board of Education of what "adequate growth" on the TCAP test for fourth graders will be — 2%? The 4% they needed to achieve in summer camp? 10%? The panel is expected to discuss the issue at its November meeting.

"It does bother me," state Rep. Kevin Raper, R-Cleveland, vice chairman of the House Education Instruction Committee, told The Tennessee Star. "We'll be a quarter of the way into the school year, and schools won't know the target they are aiming for."

The law further states that "a student may not be retained in the fourth grade more than once."

In other words, if a student struggled in English language arts in third grade, achieved a promotion in one way or another to fourth grade, and struggled again, they'll get one more year in fourth grade. And then, assumedly, they would be passed up the line and probably never get a proper grasp on their reading skills.

Schools can't keep students back forever, but it appears inevitable that even the good intentions of the third grade reading law eventually will elude a few students every year.

District-level and school-level results on those who took the summer camps and achieved — or did not achieve — the required 4% improvement are not available yet.

But the state may be ready to double the fun for administrators, teachers, parents and students.

Some lawmakers have said they plan to craft similar retention legislation for math when the state legislature returns for its 2024 session in January.

It will take several years to fully determine the success of the reading law, but we believe the laser focus on literacy in classrooms and in its importance in third grade promotion is bound to help. And, as studies have proven, nothing is as important as literacy in gauging success for the rest of a student's education, and even beyond.