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More states push retention of struggling readers

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Flunked, retained, held back. Whatever you call it, increasing numbers of states are not promoting students who are struggling to read at the end of third grade.

Thirty-two states have passed legislation designed to improve third-grade literacy, according to the Education Commission of the States. Retention is part of policies in 14 states, with some offering more leeway than others.

"Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can't read is irresponsible -- and cruel," said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in announcing in his recent State of the State address that third-graders should demonstrate an ability to read before being promoted. He also proposed a $12 million program for improving third-graders' reading skills.

Backers say retention policies put pressure on teachers and parents to make sure children succeed.

Opponents believe students fare better if they're promoted and offered extra help. They say holding students back does nothing to address the underlying problems that caused them to struggle and is the single biggest school dropout predictor.

Students who've been retained have a twofold increased risk of dropping out compared to students with similar academic struggles who weren't retained, said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Human Capital Research Collaborative, citing studies of students in Chicago and Baltimore.

Retention policies were tried out in large city districts but in recent years have been scaled back or dropped in places like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Los Angeles district spokeswoman Monica Carazo said her school system studied retention and determined that "research did not show it as an effective practice."

Ending so-called social promotion was one of Jeb Bush's education reforms when he was governor of Florida, and his not-for-profit Foundation for Excellence in Education began touting the reform package after it started in 2008.

"I think reform-minded education chiefs and state legislatures and governors are looking for something to do to help kids be successful and to do that they need policies that aren't the same old, same old," said Mary Laura Bragg, the foundation's director of state policy implementation.

Although the number isn't tracked nationally, some national representative studies show about one-fifth of eighth graders have been retained at least once, said Reynolds, who has studied retention. He said there is wide variation among school districts, with some in urban areas reporting retention rates as high as 40 percent.

Because students shift away from learning to read in the early grades to reading to learn in the upper elementary grades, most state-mandated retention policies make third grade the make-or-break year. Such policies also give struggling students another year of instruction before they take a test as fourth-graders used to compare the educational performance of states and nations, called the National Assessment of Education Progress.

"I apologize to the rest of the country," said Melissa Erickson, of Fund Education Now, a Florida parent advocacy group, of the spread of her state's reforms. She said Florida's NAEP scores had risen but noted the test takers most likely to struggle were now a year older.

"Is the goal to manipulate data so the state looks better or is the goal to help kids?"

In Florida, where the policy is a decade old, reading is generally measured by performance on a state-administered standardized test. Exemptions also are allowed for some students, like those who do well on an alternative test or whose teachers put together a portfolio showing they can read at grade level.

Because struggling Florida students can be held back up to two times, Megan Allen has students as old as 13 in her fifth-grade class in Tampa, Fla. Some of the younger ones still talk about whether Santa is real and Disney movies. Among their twice-retained classmates, Allen, the Florida Teacher of the Year in 2010, has confiscated sex notes.

"I think it is defeating for them," she said of the retained students. "These are students who are already frustrated and instead of having laws that maybe offer them supports and solutions, we have laws that are more focused on the stick than the carrot."

The fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute studied Florida's policy and found retained students made larger gains than students who weren't retained.

But critics like Shane Jimerson, a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said the study doesn't monitor the students' performance long enough. He said researchers have known retained students experience an initial academic boost but that the benefits fade.

The economy could be part of the reason the reform is gaining traction, suggested Reynolds. He said the main cost of retention -- another year of education if the student doesn't drop out -- is years away.

"It's a way to say to the public that we have tough standards in our school," said Reynolds, who said early childhood programs have better outcomes. "And because states and districts are in a financial crisis in many respects, there is no high priority placed on programs or practices that are going to have a significant cost initially."

One of the states where the Bush-backed Foundation for Excellence in Education has been involved in legislation is Colorado, where Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a law in May that mandates extra help for struggling young students and bars those considered far behind on reading from advancing to fourth grade without their superintendent's permission. One year earlier, Oklahoma passed a law that requires third-grade students to demonstrate proficiency in reading before advancing to fourth grade. Schools in both states are putting programs in place to help struggling students in advance of the retention piece taking effect in the 2013-2014 school year.

In Indiana, this is the first year third-graders had to pass a state test to move onto fourth-grade-level reading instruction. Initially, 16 percent of third-graders failed the test and had a chance to retake it over the summer. The final statewide results haven't been released, said Stephanie Sample, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education.

She said some schools are retaining students while others are promoting them to fourth grade and offering them special reading instruction to bring them up to grade level.

"We just want to make sure the kids aren't passed along before they are ready to succeed," she said.

But Bragg, who was tasked with implementing Florida's policy after its passage, said she knows what she saw happen in her state.

"That hard line in the sand of retention for third-graders moved schools in a way they had not been moved before," she said. "I don't understand why it takes the threat of something like that to do what you should be doing all along, but it worked. What I saw was a change in human behavior when a policy is put in place that forced people to do what they are supposed to be doing."


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