Alabama Legislature

Parents, Teachers, Lawmakers Divided Over Making 3rd Graders Repeat if They Fail Reading Target

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UPDATED — The Legislature today passed the Alabama Literacy Act to require flunking third graders who don’t read at grade level. The bill is headed to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, and  modeled on a Mississippi law.

“In my heart I believe that if we pass a child out of the third grade that cannot read, we are failing that child,” Collins has said.

But not everyone agrees on the idea of holding children back because they don’t have the reading skills of other children in their grade. Some educators, parents and policy makers believe the practice sets students up to fail. They also think that automatic retention penalizes poor children. One study found that children of wealthier parents are 14 percent less likely to be retained than the child of a high school dropout, even though the students’ test scores were the same.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey said the Literacy Act offers no long-lasting reforms and no recurring revenue.

“The bill has its aspirational points, but there is no adequate funding,” Pouncey said before the final passage.

“This bill ignores the retention aspects of schools,” Pouncey said. “If a student is retained, it is unlikely they will graduate, and no parent wants older, more mature boys (who have been held back) in their 12-year-old daughter’s class.”

Part of a Trend

Collins’ bill put Alabama on the bandwagon with 16 other states that require third graders to be held back a year if they don’t score at grade level on a reading assessment test. Three of those states rank in the top 10 for fourth grade reading skills. Eight of the states do not enforce the retention clause of the law.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she wants to overturn the third grade reading law, scheduled to be implemented in her state this fall.

“I think it is destructive. The mindset that you penalize kids who can’t read by the end of the third grade flies in the face of all science … a penalty doesn’t mean you are going to get a greater outcome.”

 Reading in Alabama

The reading proficiency of Alabama third graders in the 2018 Scantron test, which Alabama now uses, was 47 percent, according to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, an independent and non-partisan research center based in Birmingham.

About 13,600 students, or 24 percent of the 57,000 third graders across Alabama, tested at the lowest level during the 2017-18 school year.

In addition to the retention policy, the Literacy Act would dedicate more time, training and money to early literacy efforts.

It would create a task force to make recommendations to the Alabama State Department of Education about comprehensive core reading, reading intervention programs and teacher development. It also would give the department an annual list of approved reading assessments to measure a student’s ability.

Children in grades kindergarten through third would be given a reading screening at the beginning of the school year, and those with an identified deficiency would be given an individual reading intervention program.

In an amendment adopted Wednesday, students are to be evaluated after each grading period, and they should be given extra tutorial support if they are falling behind on reading.

Children could not be held back more than two times because they don’t read at grade level.

Implementing the law would cost an estimated $90 million dollars. It is estimated that it costs $10,700 for each student held back, according to the NCSL.

If signed by the governor, the law would go into effect Aug. 1, and then she would have up to three months to appoint the task force.

State Education Superintendent Eric Mackey said the literacy bill “seeks to improve the reading proficiency of Alabama’s students, including those with dyslexia, and I share in this goal.

“We want to continue the great work of the Alabama Reading Initiative,” Mackey said, “and look forward to working with legislators, educators, administrators and parents around the state to build on this initiative and others to serve our students in the best ways possible.”

Summer reading camps would be set up for students identified in the screenings. The bill would require that, in the 2021-2022 school year, third graders must demonstrate sufficient reading skills to be promoted to fourth grade.

It also would provide regional literacy specialists from the Alabama Reading Initiative to help elementary schools that are among the 5% lowest performing on the tests.

The reading initiative is a current program of the ASDE. Schools that are not among the lowest performing 5% would continue to share literacy specialists who serve several schools.

Not all parents and educators agree with Mackey.

Elementary school parent Summer Perez of Fultondale said she is conflicted by the proposal. “In theory it sounds good, but it seems the execution of it is only failing the students,” she said.

How Well Does It Work?

A study by the National Association of School Psychologists showed there were some successes when Florida instituted a retention policy, but also failures.

The study involved more than a million Florida students who were in the third grade in 2002-2003, when the state instituted its retention policy. The study reported that retention rates in Florida jumped from 3% in 2001-2002 to 14% in 2002-2003.

Students who were held back did better in the first few years. The effects faded over time, the NASP study found, but the students did still have higher grade point averages and took fewer remedial courses in high school. The NASP study found no discernible impact on graduation rates.

It did find that threatening students with retention leads to higher stress levels. Surveys of children’s ratings of 20 stressful life events in the 1980s showed that, by the time they were in sixth grade, children feared flunking a grade most after the loss of a parent and going blind.

When this study was replicated in 2001, the sixth grade students rated grade retention as the single most stressful life event, higher than the loss of a parent or going blind.

An analysis of studies found retained students experience lower self-esteem and lower rates of school attendance, according to the report.

Additionally, the study found that kids with learning and attention issues may not do better at all unless there are new, specific interventions in place.

If a child is held back because she’s struggling to learn, more of the same kind of teaching doesn’t help, according to the report. Moving up a grade with new learning supports in place may be a better solution, it concluded.

The study also noted that identifying students who are struggling and intervening to help them does work. It stated that reading programs, summer school and teacher-to-student instruction; tutoring homework activities and after-school programs have been found to be beneficial.

Setting Up to Fail

State Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he is concerned about students being assessed when all students do not have the resources to prepare themselves for testing.

“I am opposed to the bill itself. I am concerned about evaluations being done by set standards This proposed law is a radical change. Why push it through?

“I am concerned about the shortage of teaching units, and classes with older students mixed with younger students is a problem in itself,” Smitherman said.

“Until we can assure everybody has the same opportunities to learn, that is paramount to setting these kids up to fail.”

The PARCA report reflects Smitherman’s concerns. The Scantron test results warns that the education level and income of a student’s parents becomes a significant predictor of performance on standardized tests.

Students growing up economically disadvantaged are less likely to be read to in the early years, are exposed to fewer words, and are more likely to be exposed to health problems that can affect their capacity to learn in school and perform on tests, according to the PARCA report.

A National Conference of State Legislatures report found that 82% of all black students and 79% of Latinos are reading below proficiency.

Nationwide, kids most often flunked in the third grade are children from the free or reduced-lunches federal program.

Why Third Graders?

Third-grade readers have been singled out because, at that point in their education, they are no longer learning to read, but reading to learn.

But some Alabama educators say third grade is too late for retention because by then the students know the stigma of being held back. Kindergarten, first and second graders see school as play, one remedial reading teacher said. It would not bother them as much, but it would their parents.

Nancy Dowdy, an Alabama Education Association official in Jefferson County and special education teacher, said she personally opposed the proposed literacy act.

“Not everyone will ever be able to read on grade level. Each person has different talents and gifts. Some are better readers while others are more competent in math or science.

“I see a lot of students who read fluently but have no comprehension of what has been read. Punishing a child by retention for not reading on grade level is unfair, unjust, and uncalled for,” said Dowdy, who teaches special education in grades seven through 12.

A retired teacher said it also bothers her to that wait until the third grade to make a retention decision. She warned that, when parents figure out that receiving special education services exempts kids from being held back, parents are going to request them.

The Good Causes

The Alabama Literacy Act allows students to be promoted even if they fail the reading test if they have “good cause.”

The good cause exceptions in the proposal apply to:

  • Students exempted from taking statewide tests because of disabilities.
  • Students identified as English language learners with less than two years of instruction.
  • Students with disabilities who have an individual education plan that reflects that the student has received intensive reading intervention for more than two years and have already been retained.
  • Students who have been retained twice.

 If a parent makes a request to waive the retention rule based on one of those reasons, school officials then determine whether the child should go to fourth grade or stay in third.

But a child whose mother had a bachelor’s degree was 14% less likely to be retained in third grade than a child whose mother was a high school dropout, even though their test scores were the same, another study in Florida showed.

The study by Chicago’s American Institute for Research and Northwestern University said that parents, particularly mothers, with higher incomes and education appeared to have more success advocating for their children’s advancement than parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

According to the study, which examined retention rates in 2000 and 2008, before and after Florida’s law went into effect, 48% of low-income struggling readers were held back in third grade under the policy; but only 41 percent of struggling readers from more affluent families were held back, despite similar test scores.

The study’s lead author, Christina LiCalsi, said it’s fair to offer parents a chance to argue that their child would benefit by advancing to fourth grade despite poor reading skills.

But the exemption adds subjectivity to the decision, leading to differences, perhaps unintended, in how the law is enforced, she said.

Weighing the Issues in Michigan

Michigan also has exemptions in its law to allow students to be promoted regardless of test scores.

While the long-term impact of holding children back a grade is mixed, the socio-economic and racial disparity found in Florida should be a flashing yellow caution light for Michigan implementation of the law, said Sarah Lenhoff, assistant professor of education at Wayne State University.

Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice calls the state’s retention law “a bad law,” based on “the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.”

In a statement released in March, a conservative Michigan education group, the Great Lakes Education Project, blasted the suggestion that the state’s third grade law should be repealed.

Michigan’s law allows teachers to determine whether a struggling reader should advance even without intercession by parents.

Teachers, though, can also have unconscious bias in making these decisions, LiCalsi said.

“The most important thing for policymakers to realize is that, even though they may intend a policy to be universal and neutral, people interact with policy in different ways.”