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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Championing a community effort to improve 3rd-grade reading scores

TCAP scores are in, and I must say the excitement has never been greater. 

This time, however, the performance of our third graders is at the center of all the attention. 

Just in case you haven’t heard, our legislature upped the ante two years ago when it passed an extremely controversial piece of legislation called the Third Grade Retention Law. 

The bill, T.C.A. 49-6-3115, requires any third-grade student who does not achieve grade-level proficiency on the English Language Arts portion of the TCAP exam to be retained unless the student can meet specific criteria.

I’m no fan of this legislation but let me share with you a small bit of history that is somewhat related.

In February 2016, the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) convened a group of stakeholders from across the state to discuss achievement in our school systems. Tennessee’s stagnant and disappointing third-grade reading scores were at the top of the agenda. 

Before they departed, legislators set an ambitious goal that at least 75 percent of third graders would be proficient readers by the year 2025. 

Tennessee has implemented several initiatives over the years, including Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2), Read to be Ready, Reading 360, and now this 3rd Grade Retention law, all aimed at helping school districts meet this ambitious goal. 

The emergence of the COVID pandemic intensified existing concerns and has made the challenge all the more difficult. 

It has now been seven years since the original call to action, and we are still significantly short of the original goal of 75 percent. 

This year only 40 percent of third graders statewide and 26 percent in Memphis Shelby County Schools scored proficient on the reading portion of the state TCAP assessment.

We know that systematic change takes time, but we have yet to find the right combination of strategies to address this critical issue in our school systems. 

Academic, emotional, and social issues abound for children who are struggling readers. Children behind their peers in reading wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. 

Low achievement in reading also is the common denominator in school discipline, attendance, dropout problems, and juvenile crime.

Keep in mind that children don’t outgrow learning and thinking challenges by just repeating a grade. They may not do better at all unless there are new, specific interventions in place. 

When students are held back because they’re struggling to learn, more of the same kind of teaching does not help. 

Memphis-Shelby County Schools, however, has put in place reasonable and fair pathways and alternatives that provide opportunities for students to stay on course as far as their reading improvement and grade-level status are concerned.

It will require, however, a little more time and effort on the part of students and their families, which seems reasonable, and fair given the circumstances. 

As we stand today, third graders who scored below proficient in reading were able to retake the TCAP assessment online up to 48 hours after receiving their results. 

Parents of students who did not meet score requirements after the retake can submit an appeal online to the Tennessee Department of Education between May 30 and June 13.

If a student does not retake the test and score proficient or if a parent does not submit an appeal, those students will need to attend the Summer Learning Academy for at least 90 percent of the sessions.

At the end of summer learning, students must retake the TCAP reading test again and score at least five percent better on the test to move on to the fourth grade.

But given all the commotion around this issue, wouldn’t it be great if we could rally the entire Memphis-Shelby County Schools community (businesses, organizations, churches, colleges, universities, for example) around the improvement of third-grade reading scores? 

It would be an enormous undertaking around what is one of the most important performance indicators in K-12 education. 

The question becomes, do we have the wherewithal as a community to take on such an enormous task? I think so! 

It would require an unprecedented effort by both the community and the school system, but it is well worth a try.

We could recruit volunteers to help teachers create and implement student support plans for children who may have been held back or who are identified as struggling readers. 

Imagine, if you will, tutoring sessions at libraries and community centers staffed by volunteers (i.e., high school seniors and college students looking for ways to score volunteer points and/or meet graduation requirements). 

We could create a support network via ZOOM and other online services, where parents can log their children in and receive free reading support services. 

We could also recruit businesses and organizations to provide volunteers and incentives for children who participate in reading support programs and who meet certain performance goals. 

Some elementary schools already have adopters who visit their schools on a regular basis. Why not focus their time and resources on third-grade reading support? 

How about getting our churches involved by asking them to provide reading support services to the youth in their congregations and making a commitment to ensuring that third graders in their church are proficient readers? 

We could go on and on with suggestions. But this is an opportunity to bring our community together around a worthwhile and doable pursuit. 

I think we should give it a try.


(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at curtislweathers@gmail.com.)

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