TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — As lawmakers reconvene for the General Assembly in Nashville, the controversial third-grade retention law has been a hot topic and is now considered to be urgent as the testing season looms.

The law was passed late last session and says a student in the third grade shall not be promoted to the next grade level unless the student is determined to be proficient in the English Language Arts.

“You could be identified as third grade, the bottom category have to go to summer school, as well as the tutoring the next year. And then if you’ve not made what the state’s determining what they’re calling ‘adequate growth,’ then that student could be held back in fourth grade,” explained Elizabethton City Schools Superintendent Richard VanHuss. “Let’s say they do both of those and they do the tutoring for the entire fourth-grade year. We advanced them on to fourth grade and they do the tutoring the next year. At the end of their fourth-grade year, they will take the ELA TCAP, if they’ve not shown some type of adequate growth and we’ve not really been told what ‘adequate growth,’ what that measure means. But if they’ve not shown adequate growth, the statute says they will be retained in fourth.”

TCAP testing typically happens in late April or early May.

“By the time we would get students’ scores back, when would a retest take place? Participating in summer school possibly, you know, going through the appeals process, it’s just going to be such a narrow time frame, and you think about families, working families that schedule vacations and things like that in the summer,” said VanHuss. “Even if we get those scores back in time, what does the whole retest process look like? Are we able to do that? But in at that point in time once we receive that first score, our concern is at that point in time, parents need to be making decisions on these other options summer school as well as tutoring for that next year and lining those things up.”

Parents do have the option to appeal their student’s retention status but it’s unclear exactly how it will work.

“We’re already talking about ways [to help] as far as maybe even going to their homes with devices on wireless internet and helping them go through that process if they’re willing,” said VanHuss. “We’ve already put out an information website for parents to look at all this information. We’ve done videos, we have documents, we have just all kinds of information because first and foremost, we want parents to understand what’s coming down the road with this.”

Based on data from last year, about 50% of the third graders in Elizabethton City Schools would have been impacted last year.

“We have all kinds of tools at our disposal that we use now. We have benchmarking tests and things like that that we can use that will measure fluency and reading and those types of things. So we have better tools than this one shot, one test that we’re basing all of these retention decisions on,” Vanhuss said. “You’re talking about a third-grade cohort this year that was in kindergarten when the COVID closure started. So they essentially missed almost half of their kindergarten year. So you could make the argument that if you were going to begin this, this would be the absolute worst year to do that.”

VanHuss is also worried about the impact this will have on the future graduation rate considering students are allowed to drop out of school at the age of 18.

“So if you have a large group of students that we hold back a year, and they turn 18, like maybe their junior year, if there are situations that they don’t like what’s going on in school, they could just drop out,” he said.

Another concern is the impact this will have on staffing.

“If we have a certain number that falls below that proficient category, we couldn’t just pull a teacher from another grade level, we may actually have to hire another individual to meet all those requirements. So there are a host of issues with that, VanHuss said.

“My fear is that you’re going to have a lot of teachers that are coming to principals and administrators saying, ‘please don’t put me in third grade,’ which might create some issues as well.”

About 50% of the third graders in Kingsport City Schools would have been impacted by the law if it were in effect last year. But this year teachers and district leaders have to be proactive in communicating with parents.

“We actually have parent letters or student reports that are going out today, as a matter of fact, from our second benchmark administration, and we’ll be sending more letters out in March, we’re doing parent conferences in February. So we are trying to keep parents ahead of the curve on this and let them know exactly where their child is,” said Michael Hubbard, the director of performance excellence for Kingsport City Schools.

KCS has already held two meetings with parents about the law and is petitioning the state for more information on how to handle test anxiety and the mental health of students when it comes to retention.

Like VanHuss, Hubbard is concerned about the tight turnaround between receiving test scores and starting summer school.

Both ECS and KCS have sections on their websites dedicated to the third-grade retention law but they’re hoping lawmakers make some changes before testing begins.