In the eyes of education policymakers, Delilah Crossette’s third-grade classroom at Jefferson Elementary School is a window to the future.
Students who can read and understand the books on these shelves – “The Chocolate Touch,” “Amazing Bugs,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” – will probably succeed in school and in life. Those who can’t are four times more likely to eventually drop out of school.
“Third grade is such a transition year,” Crossette said. “They go from learning words to really reading for meaning. … Reading is just a huge focus for us.”
That’s why a growing number of states – 14 so far plus the District of Columbia – have passed laws requiring that students be retained in third grade until they are able to read well enough for upper-grade challenges.
“We really have to put an emphasis on reading. This opens or closes the door for so many of the kids,” said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. “You can’t wait until they’re a sophomore in high school to get at this one.”
Taking a chapter from states like Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma, Brownback recently proposed a measure that would require third-graders to demonstrate grade-level reading proficiency on a standardized test before they are allowed to advance to fourth grade.
Details of the plan are sketchy at best – when students would be assessed, what test the state would use, who would be exempt, what it would cost and what sorts of additional resources schools would get to ramp up reading instruction and remediation.
But Brownback and others say their goal is clear: “If you can’t read, you can’t pass out of the third grade,” Brownback said.
“Basically, I’m proposing to put a hard wall here: You’ve got to be able to read.”
Could affect thousands
Kansas education officials say they’re not sure precisely how many students would be affected by a third-grade retention law. Depending on exemptions and the cutoff score, it could be thousands.
On the 2012 state reading assessment, about 5 percent of Kansas third-graders – some 1,600 children – scored at the lowest level, called “academic warning.” Another 11 percent fell into the “approaches standard” category, which means they scored slightly better but still did not read at grade level on the test.
In Wichita, the state’s largest district, nearly 28 percent of third-graders – about 943 students – did not meet state reading standards last spring. Percentages were significantly higher among minority students, those with disabilities and those still learning English.
In his State of the State speech last month, Brownback said 29 percent of Kansas fourth-graders “can’t read at a basic level.” That number was taken from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide test that measures a representative sample of students from each state. Unlike state assessments, it does not measure or report results for individual students, classrooms, schools or districts.
Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said her immediate concern with establishing a do-or-die reading threshold is knowing how that level would be set.
“We don’t know yet what they’re proposing,” DeBacker said. “Is it going to be this one assessment or a combination of measures? … That would be a critical component, of course, so there are just a lot of questions we would have.”
What Florida did
Brownback and other advocates of retention measures point to student achievement gains in Florida, which instituted a third-grade reading requirement a decade ago as part of education reforms championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Florida’s reading law is more than just a retention policy. As part of its push to increase reading levels, the state substantially increased the money it spends on literacy programs from kindergarten through 12th grade – about $130 million this year, compared to $89 million in 2005, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
In addition, the law requires that students repeating third grade have the chance to attend summer reading programs, have an academic improvement plan, be assigned to “high-performing” teachers and receive intensive reading intervention. Elementary schools must provide all students with 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction every day. And schools must measure students’ literacy skills starting in kindergarten and notify parents if their child is below grade level.
“It’s important to remember that the retention policy in and of itself may not be the one thing that’s making a difference” in Florida and elsewhere, said Albert Wat, a senior policy analyst for the National Governors Association.
“Florida implemented a number of other interventions. … It’s hard to tease out the extent to which retention alone contributed to an increase in reading.”
In a report published last summer by the Brookings Institution, Harvard assistant professor Martin West said that after an initial spike in third-grade retentions in Florida – 13.5 percent, or about 21,800 students – the number of students retained in third grade fell steadily over six years, reaching 5.6 percent in 2008.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights showed that retention rates nationwide are highest among traditionally disadvantaged minorities, who are most likely to suffer from low academic performance.
Wat said retention policies like the ones in Florida are popular, but he cautions states against implementing retention measures without also enacting more comprehensive reforms and funding.
“It’s one thing to put in place policies like that, but it’s another thing to provide the adequate resources to increase school readiness and improve school instruction … from birth to third grade,” Wat said.
Some critics of retention say students can be harmed by the trauma of being held back, the challenge of adjusting to a new peer group and lowered expectations from teachers and parents, said West, the Harvard researcher. Once in high school, critics contend, being older than others in their grade makes students more likely to drop out.
With that in mind, the push for so-called “social promotion” has lowered the number of students being retained nationwide at every grade level.
In Wichita, retentions have dropped somewhat over the past three years. During the 2009-10 school year, 302 Wichita elementary students were repeating a grade; nearly half, 126 students, were kindergartners. In 2011-12, that number was 219 – 92 of them kindergartners.
In Derby schools last year, six elementary students were retained – five of them kindergartners. Maize and Goddard each retained seven elementary students. Andover retained 10.
Brownback and other supporters of third-grade reading retention say too many children are being passed along through the system, regardless of their academic performance.
In Oklahoma, which recently enacted a law similar to Florida’s, education officials said response has been mixed. Third-grade retention measures are set to take effect next school year.
“There’s a lot of people out there really thankful that the kids aren’t just going to be passed on through the system, that early intervention is being looked at,” said Teri Brecheen, executive director of literacy and early childhood for the Oklahoma Department of Education.
“You’ve got some people nervous. I think you’ve got teachers wondering what to do sometimes and searching that out.
“The biggest response I’ve seen so far is that everyone here wants kids to know how to read.”
West, the Harvard researcher, said test-based promotion policies haven’t been shown to hurt students directly affected. Children who scored at the lowest level of Florida’s reading test in third grade and were retained under the Florida law performed significantly better on math and reading tests two years later than their peers who scored just high enough to be promoted to the fourth grade, West found. By eighth grade, however, those positive effects faded and the students evened out academically.
The most significant effect of retention laws could be that they force schools and families to get serious about early literacy, said Wat, the analyst. In Florida, for instance, many principals began moving their best teachers to kindergarten, first and second grades.
“There’s an increased attention to the early years – not only elementary but early childhood as a foundation for later success,” he said.
Advanced readers serve as mentors
Dawn Obermeyer, a literacy curriculum coach for Wichita schools, said the Wichita district already puts increased focus and resources toward reading in the early grades.
Two years ago the district adopted Read Well, a new kindergarten curriculum aimed at helping children develop basic reading skills. The program incorporates recent research on early literacy and how children learn, and its implementation came with hundreds of hours of literacy training for kindergarten and first-grade teachers.
Wichita schools also ramped up remedial reading efforts at all grade levels through the Multi-Tiered System of Supports, a districtwide plan to improve student achievement and address behavior issues.
“Intervention programs are expensive. Qualified teachers are expensive,” Obermeyer said. “We just have to do a better job of teaching those early grades and making sure that everything is happening to support the teachers and the staff who are teaching those students to read.”
Crossette, the third-grade teacher at Jefferson – a high-poverty school near Kellogg and Oliver – estimated that “about half” of the students in her class were reading below grade level, but added that she doesn’t get discouraged.
“I’ve had kids come to me barely reading at all and kids reading at a middle-school level, so it’s difficult to teach to that big range,” she said.
A para-professional assigned to her class helps with small-group and one-on-one tutoring, she said. Other times, Crossette will pair advanced readers with struggling ones as peer mentors.
“My kids are really, really supportive of each other,” she said. “Some of them are newcomers (to the United States), so their English is very limited and they have a lot of challenges.
“All of them work hard at reading, and that’s just a big, big focus in everything we do.”
Contributing: Rick Plumlee of The Eagle