Third grader retention questioned

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Three-quarters of New Mexico voters think that third graders who aren’t reading at grade level should be held back for another year, according to a recent Albuquerque Journal poll.

Gov. Martinez and New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera both support retention of third graders who can’t demonstrate reading competence on standardized tests even if their parents object.

But all of Socorro’s elementary school principals think a blanket policy at the state level calling for the retention of every low performing third grader is a bad idea.

Unrealistic, ineffective

Last year, 22 percent of New Mexico third graders were not proficient in reading, and 25 percent were “nearing proficiency,” as measured by the state’s Standards Based Assessments, said Karin Williams, Cottonwood Valley Charter School principal.

“Almost a quarter to maybe a half of third graders would be retained,” she said. “Is that realistic?”

She thinks the money spent on keeping third graders back an extra year could be better spent on more effective interventions in the earlier grades.

“Research shows that retention above first grade is very seldom effective,” she said. “Children don’t tend to catch up in the next grade. And research shows that the ones who are retained are more likely to drop out later.

“Third grade retention is a simplistic solution to a very complicated problem.”

Systemic problems

Midway School head teacher Sally McGovern understands the concern about poor reading performance in third grade.

“Statistics show that children who leave third grade not reading at grade level have a 95 percent chance of never catching up,” she said. “But third grade is awfully late to start thinking about reading. Blanket retention may be a starting point in the discussion, but we need earlier intervention.”

McGovern would like to see more support for pre-kindergarten children and their families, especially families who are struggling economically.

“Our push should be earlier,” she said. “Put money into early childhood programs and prevention.”

Children in New Mexico are at a disadvantage, she said, because of the high poverty rate.

“Parents are holding on by the skin of their teeth, working two or three jobs,” she said. “Money should go to fund high-quality day care for preschoolers.”

She said parents who are exhausted from working don’t have the energy or time to engage in rich conversations with their children, so day care centers have to make language enrichment a priority.

“Play is important, but language development is why New Mexico fails in reading,” she said.

Parkview’s principal Anna Addis agrees with McGovern that waiting until third grade to react to reading problems is too little, too late.

“We need to be more proactive than reactive,” she said. “There are many issues involved when a student isn’t reading at grade level, and the school is not in control of all of them.”

Addis thinks the state needs to look at “systemic issues” that affect students’ performance, such as poverty.

“Where do we want to put our money? Where are the priorities?” she said. “I think third-grade retention is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.”

Focus on early grades

San Antonio head teacher John Dennis has “mixed feelings” about the retention idea.

“I do think kids and teachers need to be more accountable, but it needs to happen earlier — in kindergarten and first grade,” he said. “I think the earlier you can catch reading problems, the better. It’s like a health condition, you want to catch it before it gets to be serious, not after.”

Dennis is not against retention, but he thinks letting struggling readers have an extra year or two in kindergarten and first grade where children learn the mechanics of reading makes more sense than waiting until third grade, when the emphasis shifts to other skills, such as speed.

“If they are falling behind, they need to repeat those grades where they learn to read, kindergarten and first grade,” he said. “By the time they are in third grade, a lot of instruction is in fluency and comprehension.”

 

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