Third-grade English learners face potential retention

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Around ten Kingsport students will face an extra challenge when they begin TCAP testing this spring. Tennessee’s controversial third-grade retention law will hold children learning English as a second language to the same testing standard as other students, provided that they’ve received English instruction for the past two years.

Kingsport Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Stringham told News Channel 11 that would affect around ten out of the district’s roughly 12 English language learners currently in the third grade.

The law requires third-graders across the state to score at least ‘proficient’ on the English Language Arts (ELA) section of the TCAP test. English language learners who’ve received less than two years of instruction will be exempt from retention, but students who’ve received two years or more will be held to the same standard as all other students in Tennessee, the law states.

Kingsport English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor Sarah Good said that two years isn’t enough time to achieve proficiency in the English language.

“These tests are the equivalent of an English speaker going into a foreign country and immediately being given a test with no English on it at all,” Good told News Channel 11.

A study by the Education Trust in Tennessee predicts 79.2% of English Learners statewide could have faced retention in 2019, had the bill been in effect.

Learning to test

Both Stringham and Good pointed out that learning a new language first requires managing daily interactions, like navigating a school lunchroom or reading the whiteboard–skills that are much different than those required for state testing.

“As an ESL learner, you have to learn the language the auditory way,” Stringham said. “Then you have to learn the written language…and then you have to be able to learn academic language.”

“It’s different when you’re reading a nice story, versus reading about mitochondria in biology class,” Stringham said.

Good said the first several years of language acquisition are about day-to-day survival, rather than test taking.

Stringham said she worries that stressing over the test might impact all students’ attitudes toward school.

“It’s more than just being nervous. I feel like there’s a degree of anxiousness,” Stringham said.

Kingsport City Schools staff and parents expressed their dissatisfaction with the law in an open letter saying it puts, “a kind of pressure typically reserved for university finals or bar exams,” on students’ ELA TCAP scores.

Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) filed a bill to leave retention decisions up to local control last month. The bill is still in committee.

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