Tennessee’s education insiders have whispered for years that some elementary school principals were moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests. That’s despite clear evidence that those years are the most important for preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Now a new study has confirmed that the shift is real.

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

“These trends matter because having effective teachers in the early grades helps establish a foundation for success as students progress into later grades,” the research brief states.

The authors used Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, including classroom observation scores and student achievement data, to track the reassignment of elementary school teachers by their principals. They found that only a hundred of the lowest-rated teachers were shifted to the lower grades in any given year, making for a relatively small impact across Tennessee. However, the pattern was consistent for all reassigned teachers who scored in the bottom three evaluation ratings on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not conclusive, though, whether those teachers remain ineffective when moved to kindergarten, first, or second grades.

“This could be counter-productive, but it could actually be productive if school leaders are finding better fits for their elementary school teachers,” said Sy Doan, who authored the research brief along with Laura K. Rogers.

Another study is in the works to examine whether students’ academic growth is stunted by re-assigning less effective teachers to lower grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t require testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools, and districts.

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

“The patterns we found in Tennessee are consistent with similar studies conducted in other states,” Doan said.

Advocates of early education say the latest findings — while not surprising — should be a powerful reminder to school administrators that kindergarten through second grade are high-stakes for students’ learning and development, even if those years are free of high-stakes testing.

“I think it’s going to raise some important conversations,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. “If we want to improve third-grade outcomes, Tennessee has got to start prioritizing investments in the early grades, particularly in the quality of teachers.”

Sharon Griffin, a longtime Memphis school administrator who now leads Tennessee’s school turnaround district, made that point last week during a presentation to state legislators on the House Education Committee.

“When I was a principal …. there was this unprecedented norm where you would put your most effective teachers in grades that are tested,” she said. “Now we know from lessons learned that it’s really pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades where you need the strongest teachers, so that our kids can be on grade level by third grade and we are not trying to close the gap continuously from third grade on.”

Tennessee has done some serious soul-searching about why most of its third-graders can’t pass the proficiency bar in reading, which is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

The frustrations deepened in 2015 when a landmark Vanderbilt study showed that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee’s public pre-K classrooms were fading out by first grade and vanishing altogether by third grade.

Since then, the focus has been on why. Is it the quality of pre-K? Or could it be missteps and misalignment in instruction and curriculum from kindergarten through the third grade?

Upcoming research will dig into those questions as other Vanderbilt researchers visit Tennessee classrooms next school year to observe instructional quality and teaching practice in the early grades.

“We know surprisingly little about the connections among the experiences children have across the early grades of school,” said Caroline Christopher, who will co-lead the work with Dale Farran, director of the Peabody Research Institute.  

Their study will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education.