April 22, 2021
David Scruggs Jr. has spent most of the pandemic at his second-grade son’s side, helping him with virtual learning as their Nashville, Tenn., home became a schoolhouse as well as his office. In the next room, Scruggs’ wife, Dorothy, sat beside their first-grade daughter, a mirror image on the other side of the wall, doing the same while holding down her own job.
For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home and America’s education system struggled to adjust. The family installed a whiteboard and baby pink desk next to their TV. The coffee table became a receptacle for homework, folders and laminated multiplication tables.
Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade.
“I don’t know how much was lost or gained in this process. That’s the scary part,” Scruggs said of learning during Covid-19. “I would hope he’s not held back.”
Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to Covid-related learning loss.
So-called third grade reading laws were already the subject of fierce debate in education circles before the pandemic. But while the coronavirus raged, despite near-heroic efforts by teachers who converted their lesson plans for remote learning and parents like the Scruggs, who made their kids’ learning a priority, nearly all students in the United States have fallen behind. Some estimates suggest many — if not most — are now a year or more behind in reading and math.
Thousands, if not millions, of parents across the U.S. are now wrestling with the question: Does my child need to repeat a grade? But in 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children, but by state officials.
“I think at that point, the parents are powerless. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Scruggs said.
By some estimates, nearly 66 percent of third graders in Tennessee are not meeting English language standards and would be flagged for automatic retention under the new law. Other states have similarly staggering figures. If the laws are applied as written, that suggests hundreds of thousands of American school children may not advance to the next grade, causing bottlenecks in school systems and larger class sizes that could clog the nation’s education system for years to come.
“It’s a misguided law that was onerous before the pandemic,” Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat and former teacher, said of her state’s retention law. “Now it’s just plain cruel.”
Lawmakers long ago honed in on third grade because of research showing, from that point forward in school, children are no longer learning to read but are “reading to learn,” meaning their lessons shift from teaching the basics of reading to relying on reading skills to advance in all subjects.
Proponents of grade retention policies — who fall on both sides of the political aisle — argue holding kids back is not the primary goal, improving literacy is. The threat of retention is there to put pressure on school districts to focus on early literacy, a building block that researchers agree is necessary for success throughout K-12 education.
There is room in many of these school systems for parents to request “good cause” exemptions and fight for their child to move forward. But often these retention policies take effect before parents are even aware of their existence, let alone given the chance to petition them.
Last year, at the height of the pandemic, some states — including Mississippi, one of the early pioneers of the third-grade reading law — canceled standardized tests and suspended retention policies.
But this year, with standardized testing in many states set to move forward under President Joe Biden’s administration, some experts fear a large swath of the nation’s elementary school students could soon be targeted to repeat a grade. The fallout could last a generation.
Grade retention policies in their earliest form originated in California in 1998, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, signed a bipartisan measure requiring students of all grades to meet specific content standards in order to move ahead every year.
Republican school-choice policymakers in the early 2000s took that idea and zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos, who became former President Donald Trump’s Education secretary.
The laws operate using a carrot-and-stick approach and a basic coda: If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.
In the short term, there’s evidence these policies can work. Florida’s third-grade reading law — enacted in 2002 and among the first of its kind — boosted the state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress scores within a year and Bush, then the governor, started marketing the policy aggressively across the country.
Beth DeShone, executive director of the DeVos-founded Great Lakes Education Project, which has advocated for the benefits of third-grade reading laws, said “real harm” comes when students advance to the next grade if they are behind — a policy known as social promotion. Many states’ laws, she noted, have exceptions that allow a child to move forward in some subjects while remaining behind in reading or literacy.
“If their reading is more than one grade level behind, we owe it to them as adults to ensure that they get the commitment of intervention services,” DeShone said in an interview. “Rinsing and repeating is not successful.”
But several prominent studies in the ensuing years have concluded that mandatory retention causes stigma that damages students’ self-esteem and harms their chances of graduating high school or pursuing a college degree.
In a pandemic that has caused outsized hardship for Black, brown and low-income families, that could mean wealthy, mostly white kids have the benefit of moving ahead with their self-perception intact while others without the means for tutoring, learning pods or parental assistance will be forced to do the year over. Being a year behind their peers could later translate to delayed or lost economic opportunity.
Concerned about those outcomes, lawmakers in Florida and New Jersey are moving forward with legislation that would ease state control and give parents and school principals more say in grade retention decisions, taking into account students’ experiences learning during a pandemic as well as their performance on tests. Florida’s measure would also expand the state’s retention policy to kindergarten through fifth grade. New Jersey’s would allow parents to make the final call, regardless of the grade level. In California, lawmakers are trying to rush through a measure that would create a simpler process for parents to keep their child in the same grade next school year. Democrats in Michigan, a state with a third-grade reading law set to take effect for the first time this year, are working to strike the retention mandate entirely.
In Tennessee, bills beefing up the retention policy were passed in a little over three days during a special session with no testimony from parents or educators and signed into law in early February.
“It’s infuriating,” said Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat and member of her chamber’s education committee. “Teachers are in the middle of Covid instruction. Some of them didn’t know [about the bills] until after it was done.”
Gabriel DellaVecchia, co-founder of the Don’t Leave Us Behind campaign, an advocacy group that opposes mandatory retention in Michigan, said these policies are often passed quickly and without much community engagement.
DellaVecchia, a doctoral student in education at the University of Michigan, said he was teaching in Colorado in 2013 when the legislature there passed the Colorado READ Act, which identified some 14 percent of the state’s students in kindergarten through third grade as having a “significant reading deficiency,” meaning they were trailing far behind their peers and in danger of never learning to read.
DellaVecchia said it was policymakers, not parents, who wanted children to repeat a grade.
“I had those conversations with families,” DellaVecchia said. “No family selected this option.”
In Michigan, one of 18 states showing a decline in early literacy progress, DellaVecchia’s group and Polehanki, the state senator, are working to rewrite the law. Pre-pandemic estimates suggested 5,000 third graders — about 5 percent —in Michigan would be identified for retention on the basis of spring testing; however, due to the pandemic, some advocates say this year that number could quadruple.
Polehanki — a Democrat from Livonia, Mich., and former two-time local teacher of the year — has introduced a measure that would keep existing support structures like literacy coaches and student progress monitoring in place for students who fall behind, but would scrap the retention mandate.
But politics are not on their side. Michigan’s government is split with Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature firmly under Republican control. There’s virtually no interest among state Republicans in revising the law.
“I say there’s probably zero chance that I’m going to pass that bill,” Polehanki said. “I flipped a Senate seat from red to blue. [Republicans] want their seat back.”
In New Jersey, a state that allows retention but does not mandate it, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the state Senate education committee, wants to give parents more control over retention decisions. She said that parents this year have had “a bird’s eye view” into their child’s education and some feel retention is right for their child. Even without standardized test scores determining proficiency, she said, an extra year of learning should be on the table for anyone who thinks it could help their child.
“We’re not going to resolve this issue in the summer,” Ruiz said of pandemic learning loss.
Retention is a complex and emotional issue for parents. Sonya Thomas, a 45-year-old Nashville mother of four, made the tough call herself. But she believes the choice should belong to families — not to the state of Tennessee.
Thomas read the studies about grade retention. She poured over the data that demonstrated how retaining students — especially Black students like her son — could do irreparable harm to kids’ self-worth and chances of graduating high school. She looked looked at how well Nashville schools serve students through graduation — improving, but still far from the best track records in the country.
And then she spoke with her son, an eighth grader who was not progressing in his studies as fast as he would like during the pandemic and facing a move to a new high school when virtual learning was still new and uncertain.
Together, they chose to keep him back.
“We’re at a critical point in our children’s lives,” said Thomas. “I had to look at my child as an individual versus overall data.”
Two years ago, Thomas founded a parent organizing group, Nashville PROPEL, around the issue of retention and others facing Tennessee’s kids. PROPEL’s goal, she said, is to arm parents with data, information and resources to help them make tough educational decisions. In the pandemic, the group has found new members — including the Scruggs, who recently completed the group’s six-week parent advocacy workshop.
The sticking point is often resources. While it’s simple in theory to say all students held back should be given individualized progress plans, coaching and wraparound services to help them excel, school leaders and parents in majority Black and brown communities say the reality doesn’t always meet the promise.
That’s why even some steadfast opponents of retention say things have grown more complicated. One of them is Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Schools, who penned an op-ed last year promising no low-income student in Baltimore Public Schools would be held back.
But after a year like no other, her thinking has changed. She said she’s already getting calls from concerned parents who say the city owes their kids an education and for them, that means letting their child repeat a year. Maryland has a state policy that allows but does not require retention.
“The world is even more complex than it was when I said that,” Santelises said. “We have to be honest about this country’s track record in this kind of redo.”
In the past, retention policies have come as unfunded mandates from lawmakers and governors that demand expenses like more assessments, more literacy teachers and tutoring programs without providing the funds to pay for them. As a result, Santelises said, low-income, mostly Black and brown students are often subjected to retention at higher rates and their schools don’t have the funding to provide the additional supports they need to progress.
This year, thanks to a pandemic-related infusion of cash from the federal government, Santelises said the money is available to do retention right, if a parent wants that for their kid.
Parents, she said, “don’t want a false, glossed-over exchange or substitute for what was really supposed to be a full year of learning.” What they want is the flexibility to make the best decision for their kid and the support and commitment of the school district to provide what they need.
“These children belong to parents and grandparents,” Thomas, the Nashville mother, said. “They do not belong to the system.”