By Reading Horizons Reading Specialist, Stacy Hurst
“We’ll have to get bigger desks.” “Third graders will be sporting beards.” “It’s about time teachers’ feet are held to the fire.” These are just some responses elicited by proposals to retain students who are not reading on grade level by the end of their third grade year. Third Grade Reading Guarantees have recently been legislated in as many as 13 states in an effort to improve students’ readiness to ‘read to learn’ in grades 4-12. Spurred on with the statistic that 74% of students who are poor readers in third grade continue to struggle in ninth grade (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996), policy makers are leading the charge to eliminate the problem.
The state of Florida has been retaining students who do not pass the state reading exam since 2003. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for reading show that Florida’s fourth graders are scoring above the national average (possibly because their poor readers are still in third grade) while eighth and twelfth graders are generally performing below the national average. However, their scores continue to increase as the number of students qualifying for retention decrease. For example, in 2011, only 13,340 third graders were retained throughout the state as opposed to 27,713 in 2003.
Ohio is one state that has chosen to follow Florida’s example by instituting a similar law starting in the 2012-13 school year. In January, 30% of third graders state-wide were not reading on grade level. In other words, 40,000 students are at risk for repeating third grade unless appropriately intense interventions are put in place. If the interventions fail before the end of the school year, will retention guarantee future grade level performance in reading?
One report published by the Education Commission of the States communicated that some studies have found that less than half of students who have repeated a grade and attended summer school meet the benchmark standards for promotion. For most struggling students neither retention nor promotion is the answer.
So what is the solution to the nation’s third grade reading slump? Fortunately, the emphasis on third grade reading proficiency has increased the focus on instruction and intervention in grades pre-K through 2nd. Struggling readers can be identified as early as kindergarten or first grade. Many studies have shown that a student who is a poor reader in first grade has a 90% chance of remaining a poor reader (Juel, 1988). Research has also proven that quality classroom instruction in these grade levels is a powerful indicator of whether a student will experience difficulties in learning to read or not (Scanlon & Vellutino, 1996; Snow & Juel, 2005). Furthermore, primary grade teachers have the potential to prevent reading failure with effective instruction (Moats, 1994; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Taylor, Pearson, Clark &Walpole, 1999). In fact, it is now widely acknowledged that many primary grade students who have been identified for Special Education services would not have been identified if general classroom instruction had been explicit, systematic, targeted, and responsive (Clay, 1987; Denton & Mathes, 2003; Lyon, Fletcher, Fuchs, & Chhabra, 2006; Scanlon, Vellutino, Small, Fanuele & Sweeny, 2005; Snow, et al., 1998).
Quality instruction and intervention in earlier grades can drastically reduce the number of third graders qualifying for retention under such laws. If K-3rd grade teachers are provided with the support they need for effective implementation of evidence-based strategies as well as customized intervention settings and curricula for struggling readers then the conversation concerning third grade retention will change drastically. When that happens there will be many teachers who will be happy to throw away the order form for bigger desks, put away the shaving cream and extinguish the fire. In the meantime, at least 13 states will need to be prepared for an increased number of third graders.
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