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Ben Brewer, Deseret News
Elizabeth Gallegos and Aubrey Aguila laugh as they work on a writing assignment in Ms. Bergen's third-grade class at Bennion Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.
We're setting kids up for failure when we send them into middle school with bad reading skills. That story does not end well. —Matthew Ladner, Foundation for Excellence in Education

SALT LAKE CITY — By the third grade, students are expected to be reading to learn, not learning to read.

But with a troubling number of students failing to meet that expectation, the third grade has emerged as ground zero for educational reform and student improvement.

In Utah, third-grade scores are a key component of the state's educational goals, and nationally, states have passed legislation geared toward third-grade proficiency and more and more are looking toward the controversial option of holding back students who underperform.

Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the results of a multiyear study, in which a cohort of students was tracked to observe the connection between elementary proficiency and high school graduation. The study found that 88 percent of the students who failed to graduate tested below proficiency in reading in the third grade.

Matthew Ladner, senior adviser of policy and research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, recently shared the results of that study with guests of the Parents for Choice in Education's annual symposium. He said the research is clear that targeting literacy at a young age is key to academic success later on.

"In a very real sense you have a literary window," Ladner said. "If you miss that window of opportunity, it becomes progressively harder to pick it up later."

The concept has not gone unnoticed in Utah, where graduation rates — particularly those of minority students — are among the worst in the nation, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Gov. Gary Herbert's budget recommendations, released last month, include $10 million for the continuation and improvement of early intervention programs. The state's Prosperity 2020 education goal — which calls for two-thirds of adults holding some form of post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020 — also includes a charge that 90 percent of third-grade students score proficiently in math and language arts.

Currently, 43 percent of Utah's adults hold a degree or certificate, 76 percent of seniors graduate from high school and 79 percent of third-graders score proficiently in language arts.

Other initiatives in the state have also targeted childhood proficiency. The United Way of Utah and Utah Valley University recently launched a partnership aimed at improving literacy and numeracy in Utah County, where roughly 30 percent of third-grade students test below grade level.

Legislative action

In the Legislature, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, plans to present a bill that would establish a statewide high-quality preschool program for at-risk children — based on a successful Granite School District model — and education officials are moving ahead with implementing computer adaptive testing, which will provide more precise data for tracking student performance.

At its November meeting, the Governor's Education Excellence Commission voted unanimously to recommend that state lawmakers pass a resolution in support of the Prosperity 2020 goals. According to the Education Commission of the States, 14 states passed legislation in 2012 aimed at improving third-grade literacy, for a combined total of 32 states — and Washington, D.C. — that have policies in statute to improve proficiency in the third grade. 

Ladner said that learning to read is similar to learning to speak a language, in that it is easier to pick up the skills in younger years as opposed to later in life. Most states typically begin tracking student proficiency in the third grade, Ladner said, but he argues they should start sooner.

"The K-3 period is absolutely critical," he said. "Most state grading systems begin in grade three. We're not tracking nearly enough in what happens in those grades."

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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