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‘Social promotion’ to promote literacy

Published (4/29/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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Third-graders who can’t read could be required to repeat the year. Retention, or holding students back if they’re not academically ready to advance, is a strategy that’s working in Florida — and in a St. Paul charter school.

Modeled after the Florida program, Rep. Pam Myhra (R-Burnsville) sponsors HF1487, which calls for a statewide literacy plan with a focus on reading by third grade. The bill has no Senate companion. It is included in the House omnibus education policy bill, HF1381.

“There’s a turning point in third grade,” she told the House Education Reform Committee April 26. “Before, [students are] learning to read; after, they’re reading to learn.”

A new study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation concluded that students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers.

The bill would direct school districts and charter schools to develop plans to monitor students’ literacy skills from kindergarten through grade three and inform parents at least twice a year of their child’s reading progress. Struggling students would get extra help such as tutoring, summer school or extended time programs.

It would also limit “social promotion,” or advancing students automatically to the next grade. With certain exceptions, students would only be promoted to the fourth grade if they demonstrate reading proficiency by the end of third grade — but if not, they’d repeat third grade and receive intensive, specialized intervention.

Retention is one strategy

Concordia Creative Learning Academy, a St. Paul charter school with 390 students, 98 percent of whom are low-income, isn’t afraid to retain students if they’re not at grade level.

“Starting in pre-K, if it is determined by the teaching team as well as their assessment that they’re not ready, they don’t go on,” said Mary Donaldson, CCLA’s director. The school has significantly turned around student test scores and now has a waiting list of 350. “We feel very strongly at our school that reading is where it starts.”

Because Florida schools have focused on reading in earlier grades by frequent assessment, specialized instruction and parental involvement, the percentage of Florida third-graders retained has dropped from a 2002 high of 13.2 percent to 6.4 percent in 2008, according to Matthew Ladner, senior advisor for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Florida nonprofit.

Donaldson understands that people may be uncomfortable with the idea of asking students to repeat a grade because they fear it would harm students’ self-esteem. However, CCLA parents are usually very receptive to the recommendations of staff that a child be held back, because there is good communication all along the way and because the decisions are based on data such as work samples or assessment results.

The bill’s critics support its goal of universal literacy, and some proposals such as suggested intervention strategies — including more time on task and individualized support — but don’t want students to be stigmatized by being held back.

“You call it social promotion; I call it flunking students,” said Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), who supports early childhood education as an alternative. “A child who can’t read in third grade is in deep weeds. We have to get to them earlier.”

Ladner acknowledged that poorly planned retention efforts in states such as Texas, which held back ninth graders at one point, have failed to improve literacy, test scores or student learning, but said Myhra’s bill is different.

“This policy is aimed at the developmentally critical period, K through three; it is using objective test score data to inform retention decisions; it is helping the kids; and it is doing it before it is too late,” he said.

Others say the program is costly and the funds would be better spent on other proven methods to improve student achievement.

“There are multiple other interventions that do not make children nine and younger bear the burden for the failure of adults,” said Matthew Mohs, St. Paul Public Schools’ director of Title I services. If the state is willing to invest in up to two additional years of education for children through the retention proposal, he said similar results could be accomplished by funding extended year or early childhood programs.

Such programs are working at Washburn Elementary School in Bloomington, said Jon Millerhagen, its principal. Even third grade is too late to intervene, he said.

Of his school’s 500 students, 160 are English language learners and 60 percent are low-income. He spends federal Title I funds on preschool programs and all-day kindergarten for children at risk of falling into the achievement gap, and on parent education to teach them how to support their children’s reading at home.

He says those measures are paying off, with only six first-graders of about 80 reading below grade level this year — “numbers that are very strong.”

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