58033NY Times: Literacy Laws Challenge Third Graders and Schools
- Aug 6, 2014Megan Gielow for The New York Times
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Educators like to say that third grade is the year when students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Yet one afternoon last month, there was Anthony, a 10-year-old whose small frame was highlighted by baggy black cargo shorts, struggling with “Tiny the Snow Dog,” a picture book with only a handful of words per page. “This is Tiny,” he read to his teacher, Holly Bryant. “He is my dog.”
Anthony is one of about 1,900 children from the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District who failed the standardized reading test given to all North Carolina third graders in the spring. Under a recent law similar to those in more than a dozen states, such students in North Carolina may be required to repeat the grade. The law, being applied this year to third graders for the first time, poses a set of thorny educational challenges.
About 1,500 students — or one of every eight who completed third grade in Charlotte in June — ended up enrolling in literacy school, along with Anthony, who has been attending four days a week for the past six weeks.Megan Gielow for The New York Times
Fourteen states in 2012 enacted policies either mandating or strongly recommending that schools hold back students who could not read properly by third grade. Districts in Arizona and Colorado also offered summer school for struggling third-grade readers for the first time this year, then will consider whether to hold back some of them before the new school year begins.
While the summer courses are likely to make some difference, teachers here and around the country say the third-grade laws are another example of lofty educational goals paired with insufficient resources. A six-week course, they say, cannot possibly make up for what Anthony and the others need: the extra help and focus should start in preschool.
“It’s like, O.K., we’re going to do this, and if kids don’t read at third-grade level, they’re going to be held back,” said Bill Anderson, a former principal and executive director of MeckEd, an education advocacy group in Mecklenberg County. “And, oh, by the way, there’s not going to be any money for this. School districts just have to figure this out.”
In North Carolina, the state provided some funding, but districts also relied on nonprofit foundations to supplement the costs of the summer reading academies. State budget reductions in recent years have led to larger class sizes and a reduction in teaching assistants, even in the youngest elementary classes. Fewer than a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Although many of the new state laws do include provisions requiring schools to identify and support students who show signs of reading difficulties as early as kindergarten, the biggest focus does not come until third grade, along with the consequences for schools and students.
“The emphasis is in the wrong place, and it ought to be much earlier,” said Barbara O’Brien, policy director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a nonprofit advocacy group, and a former lieutenant governor of Colorado. “I think it’s bittersweet that we have this almost national focus and agreement on what’s important, and it’s at a time when no one wants to spend money to do things the right way.”
Educators also say that many out-of-school factors contribute to a child’s reading ability. Research suggests and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a policy recommendingthat parents read to their babies from birth.
The policies follow the pattern of many other educational reform efforts that impose consequences for failure to meet certain goals. “It’s sort of the hammer falls under certain conditions,” said Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. In the absence of a strong reading curriculum and teacher training between pre-K and third grade, he said, holding students back a grade seems “in some sense unfair to kids.”
In Florida, one of the pioneers in holding back third graders because of inadequate reading skills, all teachers are required to assess children’s reading levels starting in kindergarten and to offer extra support for children who have trouble learning to read.Megan Gielow for The New York Times
“Principals did start looking at this as, ‘We’ve got four years to make sure this happens,’ ” said Mary Laura Bragg, vice president of advocacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, “not just, ‘Oh, we’ve got to start looking at this in third grade.’ ” Ms. Bragg served as head of reading initiatives with the Florida Department of Education under Mr. Bush, who backed the state’s policy on holding back struggling third-grade readers when he was governor.
Florida introduced its policy in 2002, and between that year and 2013, the percentage of fourth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose to 39 percent from 27 percent, one of the largest improvements in the country. Research using Florida’s test results has also shown that, on average, students who repeated third grade performed better on standardized reading tests through middle school than peers who had scored just a few points above the cutoff for moving up to fourth grade.
But lasting results are harder to document. The percentage of Florida eighth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose from 29 percent in 2002 to just 33 percent in 2013, similar to increases elsewhere in the country. Other studies show that students who must repeat a grade drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers.
In North Carolina, the law originally mandated a repeated grade and summer school for any third grader who could not demonstrate proficiency at reading either on the end-of-year standardized test or other measures, including portfolios amassed by teachers. The policy offered exemptions for students with learning disabilities or those who had been learning English for two years or less. After pressure from parents, teachers and advocacy groups, the Legislature modified the law to offer school districts and principals more flexibility in assessing students’ reading abilities and in placing them after third grade. Also, while districts had to offer the summer reading classes, struggling students were not required to attend.
With states starting to align standardized tests with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states, more students have fallen short of proficiency guidelines than in the past. That could mean many more third graders subject to the new policies about repeating the year.
The challenges for teachers were evident in Charlotte on a recent morning. In one classroom, Emily Hill, who teaches kindergarten during the school year, was instructing two 9-year-olds on how to pronounce vowel combinations like “ai,” “ie” and “ee.”
In another class, full of students who had tested at around a second-grade reading level at the end of third grade, Ullanda Tyler, a teacher with 11 years of experience, had moved beyond basic phonics to work on vocabulary and skills like inference.
Yet students still had trouble explaining definitions she had recently taught.
All students who attended the summer classes took a test at the end to measure their progress. Later this month, principals in Charlotte will decide which of the students must repeat third grade.
Reading experts said children should not be in such a position this late in elementary school.
“If I were a parent and I had a struggling third grader, I would get whatever help I could to help get them up to speed,” said Deborah J. Stipek, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. “But if I were a state policymaker or superintendent, I would say, ‘What can we offer these kids in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade so they aren’t behind when they get to third grade?’ ”