Tennessee officials are far from reaching a consensus about the best way to improve students’ reading scores, but they agree on one point.

“We do not have an option to do nothing,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis lawmaker who chairs a key legislative committee on education.

While reading is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas, just over 36% of Tennessee third-graders passed the state’s proficiency bar last year, based on achievement test results. That threshold is important because fourth grade is when schools ramp up expectations for how students should apply their reading skills to other subjects such as math and science.

The poor showing is the impetus for Gov. Bill Lee’s comprehensive literacy plan, including $68 million in proposed new investments. The goal is to provide Tennessee’s 147 school districts with access to resources and supports and to train teachers in phonics-based reading instruction, which Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn refers to as the “science of reading.”

Below, a district-by-district list shows the percentage of students who scored proficient as readers on state achievement tests in 2018-19, based on data provided by the education department. The list includes each school system’s proficiency rates in both third grade and overall, plus its statewide ranking for third-grade performance.

The third-grade rates ranged from 73.9% in Arlington, a suburban district in Shelby County, to 5.6% for the state’s lowest-performing schools in Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The top 5 included four municipal school systems in suburban Shelby County, while Memphis-based Shelby County Schools (22.8%) landed in the bottom 10.

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