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No overstating the implications of third-grade reading scores

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers.

As we wrap up state TCAP testing this week, I congratulate and commend all our teachers and administrators for the hard work put in this school year to improve the achievement levels of our children.

Now the waiting begins.

This always is an anxious time of the year for educators, this year in particular.

I will be sitting on the edge of my seat over the next several weeks awaiting district and state test results, especially for third-grade reading.

Reading is, by far, the most important educational skill one can acquire. This is because so much of what is taught in any curriculum is via reading.

Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a critical marker in a child’s educational development.

Students in third grade who can read well have a fighting chance in their schoolwork going forward. However, those who need help with reading find it increasingly more challenging to catch up or excel.

Tennessee legislators, however, have raised the stakes. The repercussions of the state’s third-grade retention law are about to unfold, and the implications are significant.

Beginning this year, third graders who do not meet a certain threshold on state TCAP exams risk being retain.

Last year, only 34.7 percent of Tennessee’s third graders were reading proficiently.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools officials predict more than 2,700 of its third graders are at risk of being held back under the new third-grade retention law.

Researchers continue to study the effects of these retention laws across the nation. They have found that states with a retention component saw higher gains on end-of-year standardized tests than states that did not.

But the states with the most significant gains in test scores had more comprehensive policies, such as additional student support, teacher training, and additional funding.

Opponents argue that holding students back introduces new emotional and social challenges for children and that these policies can disproportionately affect low-income families and students of color.

But why is third grade so critical?

First, reading is the most important educational skill one can acquire. Without a strong foundation in reading, children are left behind at a critical stage of their educational journey.

Grade 3 learners who can read well continue to flourish in their schoolwork. Those who need help with reading will find it increasingly more challenging to catch up and keep up.

Educational, emotional, and social issues abound for children who are poor readers.

Experts tell us that a child’s reading ability by third grade is the single most significant predictor of future success and is highly correlated with high school completion, socioeconomic status, and lifelong health and wellness.

Children not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Low achievement in reading also is the common denominator in school discipline, attendance, and juvenile crime.

And finally, research has proven that if a child is not proficient in reading by the end of third grade, there is little to no chance that they will be able to overcome future academic challenges as curricula becomes much more challenging.

The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for the child to catch up.

States across the nation are approaching this issue in various ways.  Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia either allow or require districts to hold back students who aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Some states paused their retention requirements or have eliminated them altogether.

Other states like Tennessee are recognizing that retention alone isn’t the solution, but infusing more support strategies might enhance the ability of teachers, schools, and districts to get better results.

Critics of the new retention law believe schools can provide extra support and interventions for kids without holding them back a grade.

Advocates, however, disagree.

Those who support these types of policies say they are necessary in their quest to improve early literacy, triggering additional support services for students who need them and ensuring that all children are ready for the increased load of reading they’ll be faced with in higher elementary grades, middle and high school.

While I support the underlying intent of Tennessee’s third-grade retention law, it is far from perfect in its current form.

My concerns mirror those of so many others:

First, it is wholly unfair (almost immoral) to retain an 8-year-old child based on one test score from a standardized achievement test that was never meant to be used in such a manner.

Second, the sheer number of third graders who could be retained.  MSCS is projecting over 2,700 students for the 2022/2023 school year.

Third, studies that show elementary school retentions are counterproductive (and even harmful), disproportionately impact students of color, and can widen achievement gaps.

Fourth, the failure to adequately address students with learning disabilities, which is the cause of many, if not most reading deficiencies.

We are about to embark upon a cosmic shift in policy and practice regarding the implications of third-grade reading successes and/or failures.  The stakes couldn’t be higher.

There is more to come regarding this issue.  I just hope we eventually get it right.

(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at curtislweathers@gmail.com.)

 

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