James Yapias, principal of M. Lynn Bennion Elementary in Salt Lake City, agreed, saying that intervention for at-risk children in particular should begin as early as possible.
"I think what's important is starting at kindergarten, or even before then," Yapias said. "By the third or fourth grade that foundation needs to be solid."
Because the impact of third-grade reading is considered so important, 13 states now require low-scoring students to repeat the third grade, a process known as retention. The practice is controversial, with many experts and parents pointing to mixed results in student performance studies and questioning the social consequences of removing children from their age group.
Holding kids back
In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that since Florida students started being held back in 2002, fourth-grade reading scores have risen dramatically but eighth-grade scores have stayed relatively unchanged. The same report stated that after Chicago schools retained thousands of students in the 1990s, studies showed the retained students performed no better later on than their similar-scoring peers and the likelihood of dropping out of school increased.
But Ladner said retention opponents are overlooking the most telling statistic in Florida. In the 10 years since the state began holding students back, the percentage of students requiring retention has been cut nearly in half.
Ladner described retention as a "parental involvement generator." He said Florida schools have implemented a comprehensive literary program to help struggling students, but the threat of retention is kept as a "last resort" to motivate parents and students to increase proficiency before the end of the year.
"You can't just wish for parental involvement, " he said. "You have to do something."
Utah does not have a mandatory retention policy, said associate superintendent Judy Park. Instead, parents concerned about their child's progress have the ability to discuss grade repetition on a case-by-case basis with school administrators.
"We're a choice state," Park said. "We believe in supporting and honoring parents."
Park agreed that the early grades are important years in a child's development and that there's a direct correlation between a student's ability to read and their academic success. But she said she didn't buy into the idea that a student can't be taught to read after the third grade. She pointed to Utah's proficiency scores, where by the eighth grade 90 percent of students read at grade level, compared to 79 percent in the third grade.
"At the end of the day if you're forcing retention, is it really in the best interest of that child?" she asked. "I would hope there would be other incentives to encourage (parent) participation."
Mentoring an option
Yapias was also unconvinced of the benefits of mandatory retention policies. He said he preferred one-on-one mentoring or extended class time for struggling students as opposed to wide-ranging blanket policies, especially when the benefits of those policies are unproven.
Students at Bennion speak 23 different languages and often struggle with learning through a language barrier, Yapias said, but by taking an individualized approach to the needs of students, the school had seen proficiency rates increase each year.
"We've had success here at Bennion," he said. "Every student's academic needs should be personalized."
When asked about the varied research findings on retention's efficacy, Ladner agreed that the likelihood of lasting and continuous performance gains is unproven. But he added that regardless of whether a retained student outscores or even matches their peers in high school, there's no denying that more Florida students now enter the fourth grade with the ability to read compared to before the retention policy was enacted.
"The top priority of elementary schools, everywhere, should be teaching students to read," he said. "We're setting kids up for failure when we send them into middle school with bad reading skills. That story does not end well."
Retention policies are also relatively inexpensive, he said. Florida's literacy program is mostly paid for with existing federal school improvement dollars, he said, and since 1990 Florida has seen the second-highest increase in student proficiency scores despite the smallest increase in costs per pupil.
"They mostly were just repurposing existing funding streams," he said.
Ladner was sympathetic to parents who worry about the social and self-esteem ramifications of holding a student back. He said schools obviously don't want third-graders who need to shave, but added that most states put limits on how many times a child can be held back and there's no reason why schools can't customize a student's education to eventually promote them back to grade level.
He also said that whatever qualms parents hold about having their student repeat a grade are outweighed by the negative effects of falling further and further behind.
"In my opinion, there's nothing cruel about this at all," he said. "It's cruel to allow an illiterate third-grader to go into fourth grade and fifth grade."
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