In an effort to boost literacy among its youngest students, Shelby County Schools has proposed a policy that would require second-graders to repeat the school year if they don’t read on grade level.

The district and state have struggled to get students ready to read by third grade and have heavily invested in literacy instruction. That has led to significant growth in reading scores in Memphis, but literacy rates remain stubbornly low.

Interim superintendent Joris Ray said the policy would ensure what he calls “the third-grade guarantee.”

“We want our students to be positioned to be competitive for the upcoming years because reading is definitely fundamental and it sets our students up for success,” Ray told reporters before a committee meeting of board members began.

The proposed policy would require the district’s 8,700 second-graders to meet eight of 12 points the district already tracks in order to be promoted to third grade. Four of those could come from passing report card grades in English each quarter, three from passing assessments to measure growth in reading skills, three from the state’s program for students struggling with reading, and two from the end-of-year test the district uses from the state.

The district would require students who do not meet the necessary number of benchmarks to attend summer school, where they could catch up in time to be promoted in the fall. The following school year, students would have 45 days to catch up before being required to repeat all of second grade.

About 26 percent of third-graders in Shelby County Schools can read on grade level as measured by the state’s TNReady test. The district wants to get that number up to 60 percent by next year and 90 percent by 2025 because third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future academic performance.

The district already has a third-grade retention policy that’s not as specific as Burt’s proposed policy.

Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

“The reason we’re addressing second grade in Memphis is when you looking at first grade, fifth month around December, the gap starts to widen,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s chief academic officer. “Nationally, it’s normally first grade, 11th month, which would be June going into the second grade year. Something happens in Memphis where that gap grows faster.”

The policy is modeled after a Florida law that was in place when Burt oversaw school turnaround there. Before going to Florida, Burt led a Memphis school in the district’s heralded Innovation Zone for low-performing schools.

If the policy is approved by the Shelby County Schools board, district officials will track students next year and recommend those who qualify to attend summer school in 2020, but not make it a requirement. The next year, qualifying second-graders would be required to go to summer school or be held back. Parents would be notified by Feb. 1 each year if their child is at risk of repeating second grade. Students who would be fully affected by the policy are this year’s kindergartners.

Burt declined to share his estimate on how many second-graders could be held back based on current data, saying it wouldn’t be valid to judge current students on a policy that’s not in place yet. He did not have an estimate on costs the policy might incur, such as additional second-grade teachers and a communications campaign to explain the initiative to parents and employees.

School board member Stephanie Love said the policy wouldn’t help older students who have already been passed along to the next grade without reading on grade level.

“Kudos to what we’re doing for second grade, but I think we’re still doing a disservice to certain students if we’re not looking at the entire district,” she said during the meeting Tuesday.

Requiring students to repeat a grade in middle school can cause dropout rates to spike, but doesn’t have the same consequence for younger students. Paired with summer school, retaining elementary school students can help in the long run, research shows.

A Michigan law that would hold back third grade students who aren’t reading at grade level goes into effect in the fall. With similarly low literacy rates, parents and district officials are worried a majority of Detroit youth will be held back. So far, the exact meaning of what reading on grade level looks like has not been determined.

Indiana schools use a separate reading test from its regular state assessment to determine if third-graders can read well enough to be promoted. State policymakers have allowed more flexibility for schools to move students to fourth grade as long as they re-teach reading skills if they don’t pass the test.

The proposed policy would require three readings from the school board and would likely come up for an initial vote later this month.

Below is a district information sheet on the proposed retention policy: