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Kristin | January 28, 2013

Automatic Retention for Non-Reading Third Graders?


PreschoolkidsBy Kristin

A new bill is going before the legislature this week.  Called the "Third Grade Reading Accountability" bill, it requires that schools implement pretty serious remediation interventions for K-3 students who are not reading at standard.  If they still aren't reading at standard in third grade, they can't go to fourth grade.

Part of me is really excited about this. For a long time I've argued against social promotion. As a high school teacher I often taught children who were still reading at the third grade level and I'd think, "How did they get to tenth grade?"  I think we do a big disservice to children to put them in fourth grade- where explicit decoding instruction isn't typically part of the curriculum- when they can't read. 

But another part of me has learned that holding a child back can be pretty traumatic for the child, and doesn't solve the problem. 

I found a great article that helped me clarify my thoughts.  By the National Association of School Psychologists, it outlines a common sense approach to supporting students who are below standard.  It suggests that neither automatic social promotion or automatic retention make sense.  Instead, "When faced with a recommendation to retain a child, the real task is not to decide to retain or not to retain but, rather, to identify specific intervention strategies to enhance the cognitive and social development of the child and promote his or her learning and success at school."

The article goes on to look at the research.  Basically, while retention shows academic gains the following (repeated) year, after 2-3 years the child does worse, and is eventually 5-11 times more likely to drop out of school.  Probably because without intervention strategies tailored to that child's needs, all the same obstacles are still there that prevented him from reading at standard in third grade.

So I've had to shift my position.  I used to dream of the day our legislature would insist a child couldn't leave third grade without reading at the third grade level.  Now, I think I want that decision, and all the other decisions made to help that child, to be up to the family and the teachers.  I don't want it to be mandated.  Maybe the solution is to do a better job of teaching explicit reading skills after third grade.

What do you think?


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Five things:
1. If automatic retention was a good idea, we'd already be doing it. We aren't.

2. The timing doesn't work. If a child is to be retained, the conversation has to start by March at the absolute latest. January is best. MSP scores come out in September.

3. In Washington, parents have - and should have - the ultimate say in retention.

4. The legislators who proposed this bill figured it would cost 10k per kid for the extra year of school. Why not have second grade teachers identify those kids before we retain them and pump that money into extra help, including summer school?

5. Luckily, it looks like this bill is dead.

I agree with you Charlie. Perhaps our targets are the problem. National statistics suggest that approximately 60% of kids entering kindergarten are not adequately prepared. Disproportionately, these are minority and poor kids who sense from their first day of school that they are a square peg being forced into a round hole. We created the round hole though and our recent obsession with test scores above all else has made it rounder and smaller. How many kids find purpose in reading faster so that their DIBLES score is better, or counting faster so that their benchmark score is better, or adding numbers that don't make sense in ways the make even less sense so that our schools grade can go from a B to a B+. That is the purpose we have created in our schools and it is difficult to be surprised when students are not motivated by this purpose. We have to take a step back and evaluate our expectations and how we are treating our students. If we are to call ourselves public school then our responsibility is to be a hole that all kids can pass through, not 40% of them. Perhaps instead of sorting and labeling our students based on the abilities they don't have when they come to us, we can empower our students to be the thinkers and learners that all of them are capable of becoming. More testing won't do this. Retention will not do this. We have got to find ways to end the gatekeeping and sorting that have become the norm. We have got to find ways to look past test scores as the definition of who our students are.

Dr. Pezz, I think the answer lies in extended opportunity.

I would love to see struggling K-3 students go to school year round. A family struggling economically would probably appreciate the childcare, and the child is given increased time to learn.

While this would cost more, it boggles my mind that our current system spends as much or more on intervention efforts at the high school level. When I taught high school, many children spent an extra two years trying to get their diploma. Why not put that extra FTE at the primary grades so that children have a real shot?

The fact we treat K-3 like we treat 9-12, with 28 students in a class, a 7.5 hour day and limited resources, is insane.

I think careful allocation of resources, individualized interventions, and an extended day in k-3 would make a more positive impact than mandated retention.

But I agree with you that we cannot simply continue to shuffle kids along without doing something that allows them to know the material. I just don't think that teaching them the material a second time is the only, or best solution.

Retained students are more likely to drop ut, but what is the effect of pushing kids into courses for which they are woefully underskilled? The retention stats are often used, but the social promotion piece is true too.

I don't have an answer, but am willing to hear your thoughts.

High school is too late, but if the research shows retained students are more likely to drop out then I think we need legislative support for a long term solution.

Charlie, I like the idea of identifying barriers. It seems this bill has some good stuff in it regarding extended day, summer school, and interventions. Paying for it's always a problem, but it would be money well spent.

And I think the real solution will lie in staffing elementary schools so that the student to teacher ratio is low, so that staff can truly individualize instruction. A part time nurse, 28 kindergarteners and part time aides is not a system that allows a child's barriers to learning to be identified early.

Charlie Mas

I think that the solution lies in backing away from the perception that children are widgets moving along an assembly line and regarding them as human beings.

With human beings there are no "always" and "never". Each case must be regarded as unique and individual, just as every human being is unique and individual.

Retain or promote isn't the question. The question is "What are the barriers to this child's progress and how should we address those barriers?"

What is it about the view from the state house that makes that so hard to see?

Waiting until high school is too late, so where is the line drawn?

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