Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

1-18 3rd Grade retention needs more thought

11713 testing

SANTA FE – If everything could be quantified to a number, wouldn't life be easier? Everything would be clean and simple. But that's not the way life usually works. There are so many variables in making a decision.
That's what makes this third-grade reading requirement so confounding. A score on a reading test determines whether a student can pass on to the fourth grade or has to stay in third grade another year – or two.
That is a big decision in a child's life. Does the child get to move on to the fourth grade and keep the same friends or run the risk of falling further behind in acquiring reading skills?
It's a tough decision faced by parents and teachers every year. And it's not just in the third grade. That's a number chosen by people in government but decision-time comes at the end of every year – all the way down to kindergarten and in the upper elementary grades too.
When parents are brought into the decision, their preference usually is to keep the child in the same social group – thus the term social promotion. Parents look at many factors beyond the score on a test. They know there will be big-time emotional results on the child, who will have to make new friends and who will be called a dummy for years.
The effects are even greater because the practice isn't used often so the child who has been retained stands out like a sore thumb.
But third-grade retention may come into greater use if New Mexico follows Florida's current practice. The political concern is stories about illiterate high school graduates, dropouts and college dumbbell English courses.
It is a major problem and it needs to be addressed. But maybe flunking third grade isn't the best answer.
Kindergarten teachers can spot the students who already are having trouble with letters, simple words and writing. They need extra attention from the beginning.
Parents can be the biggest help of all – but often can't or won't. Modern schools have all sorts of additional resources available.
There are teacher aides, special reading teachers, reading coaches, diagnosticians and others who can provide help. In small school districts, all these intervention services may be wrapped into one person.
In many districts, some of these services have been on the cutting board during the past several years of budget slashing.
But Gov. Martinez and Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera have been looking for federal money to enhance the services.
All these services should be available from the beginning of a child's education, not just at some magic point at the end of third grade.
Groups fighting the governor's proposal contend that retaining all students not reading at grade level can hinder social, emotional and cognitive development of those retained.
It can cause these students to give up, drop out or become a bully to younger classmates.
Maybe Gov. Martinez decided to pick retention at the end of third grade as a means of grabbing people's attention to the need for more reading assistance in the lower grades. If that is the case, she succeeded.
But it is now time to reach a compromise on enhanced reading instruction and get away from a test score being the determining factor.
Likewise, a single test score is unfair to these students' teachers. Numerous proposals have been introduced into the Legislature in recent years to pay teachers on the basis of student test scores.
Currently students are being tested only in reading and math and not at all grade levels. Yet teachers are being asked to teach many other subjects and behavioral qualities that don't relate to English and math.
Teachers are being asked to act in place of students' parents while they are in school. And in some districts in a few states, teachers are being armed.
It's time to take a deep breath and think through some of these proposals.


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