Monday, June 5, 2023

Tennessee’s third grade retention law goes into effect this year: what does the MTSU College of Education have to say?


Share post:

Story and Photos by Zoe Naylor

The third-grade retention law, a Tennessee law requiring third-grade students be held back if they do not meet grade-level reading and language standards, went into effect this school year. Although there are caveats to the law, it will have profound effects on students, teachers and parents alike.

Third grade in Tennessee is the first year students take TCAP assessments, the state-wide, end-of-year benchmarks that reflect a student’s proficiency in math, science, English language arts and social studies. Students’ ELA scores will be used to determine if they are able to move on to fourth grade or if they are retained in third.

A crucial milestone in a child’s learning, third grade is the first year that students are “reading to learn” instead of “learning to read,” as they do in kindergarten through second grade. Dr. Kat Mangione, who has taught third grade for six years and at Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Education for 12, said reading to learn is a big step for seven- and eight-year-olds as they gain independence with “less foundational” reading skills.

“I used to tell my third-grade students, if you could read, there was not anything in the world you could not learn to do,” said Mangione. 

Undoubtedly, teachers in MTSU’s COE agree, “Children should be able to read.” But Dr. Tracey Huddleston, who has taught elementary education in the COE for over 30 years, takes issue with how students’ reading ability is determined.

“That one test is problematic,” she said. Too much weight is given to a single standardized test, according to Huddleston. She suggested diversifying the standards that allow third graders to move on — considering teacher-assigned projects and individual student evaluations over the course of the year rather than putting so much pressure on one assessment.

One MTSU elementary education student, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed. Currently in her first semester of student teaching in a third-grade Murfreesboro classroom, she said, “I don’t know if it’s appropriate to base that decision off one standardized test.”

The future teacher summed up her feelings about the law in one word: anxious. She said the law puts unnecessary additional pressure on teachers, making her “a little nervous” for when she enters the field.

Because student scores can affect teacher pay and rehiring, teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place: going at their students’ pace to solidify their learning or keeping up with rigorous state-wide standards.

In an environment that ought to nudge students to start reading chapter books, learn about the water cycle and convert improper fractions to mixed numbers, the classroom climate has become “high-pressure,” she said, disappointedly. 

The student said teachers can unfortunately relate to the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” With TCAP testing looming ahead, students are continually reminded which standards will be on “the test,” whether they grasp the significance of that statement or not.

“As a society, we’ve kind of backed ourselves into a corner,” said Huddleston. “It’s not a good thing if we have a third grader who can’t read,” but “it’s complicated.”

The retention law primarily establishes an intervention system, a common concept in education meaning a teacher remediates after a student has struggled with a topic. Another way for teachers to educate is through prevention, where a teacher is more proactive and provides extra review on topics before a student is assessed.

Both modes of teaching are necessary for students, and both are helpful in their own ways. However, the retention law focuses more on intervention rather than prevention. COE professors, graduate assistants and student teachers have reached a consensus: the law — and our education system as a whole — should place more emphasis on the latter than the former.

“Once you get behind, it’s very hard to catch up,” said the student teacher.

Thankfully, the retention law does have a plan for some prevention. It states that if a student does not meet grade-level ELA standards, they may still be promoted to fourth grade if they a) complete summer school or b) receive tutoring and are reading on grade-level by the end of fourth grade.

These options will improve third graders’ reading skills while allowing them to develop alongside their peers and continuing their education on other subjects.

Project Transformation, a nonprofit with chapters across the South and Midwest, has the same goal. The afterschool and summer program connects college-age volunteers, churches and students to help young readers avoid the “summer gap.”

Also called the “summer drop,” the term refers to the literacy hurdle that students encounter when they are unable to read as much during school breaks as they are throughout the academic year. Project Transformation’s goal is to maintain a student’s reading level — a herculean task for students living in poverty, who might not have access to a local library or challenging reading material at home. Even if Project Transformation does not magically fix a student’s reading level, it can help students avoid the “summer drop.”

Despite efforts from organizations like Project Transformation and the law’s addenda allowing third graders to move on if they receive extra help, Dr. Mangione believes the retention law will “widen the gap” between “the haves and the have-nots…between strong readers and weak ones. Between those benefitting from the education system and those it hurts.”

Teachers and students in the College of Education agree that this law will have a profound effect particularly on students in impoverished areas. With fewer resources like outside tutors, local libraries and bookstores, many are holding their breath to see how the law will play out in Tennessee’s elementary schools.

All in all, members of the College of Education at MTSU are apprehensive to see how the law will affect their students and their careers. Some say the law is counterproductive. Others hope the law will serve as a wake-up call to legislators and draw attention to the issue of illiteracy in Tennessee, whose education system currently ranks number 33 in the United States, even if the law is imperfect.

With an air of certitude, Dr. Mangione says, “Public education can lead us to an enlightened society.” 

Hopefully the law will serve to that end.

Zoe Naylor is a feature writer for MTSU Sidelines.

To contact News Editor Kailee Shores and Assistant News Editor Alyssa Williams, email

For more news, visit, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter and Instagram at @mtsusidelines.

Related articles

Reps. Jones and Pearson Reinstated to Original Positions

Featured Photo by Jorge Avila Story by Jenene Grover Tennessee’s House of Representatives voted to expel Democrat members Justin Jones...

Rally on Franklin Public Square Calls for Strengthened Gun Laws

Featured Photo by Ethan Schmidt Story by Ethan Schmidt A protest in support of enhanced Tennessee gun legislation took place...

Russian forces plan to fortify border as Finland joins NATO

Featured Graphic by Destiny Mizell Story by Noah McLane Finland was officially accepted as a member of NATO on April...

3 Democratic Representatives from Tennessee House might face expulsion

Story and Feature Photo by Jenene Grover At 10:13 a.m. on March 27, the Covenant School in Green Hills,...