Colorado

More states requiring third-grade retention

→ The first stage of Colorado’s READ Act goes into effect this school year. Learn more.

Thousands of third-graders may have a sense of déjà vu on the first day of school this year: The number of states that require third-graders to be held back if they can’t read increased to 13 in the last year.

Students at Sheridan’s Fort Logan Elementary work on a literacy lesson in this EdNews file photo.

Retention policies are controversial because the research is mixed for students who are held back, but a report published Aug. 16 by the Brookings Institution suggests that at least for younger children who struggle with reading, repeating a grade may be beneficial.

The report, which examined a decade-old retention policy in Florida, was authored by Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He argues that “the decision to retain a student is typically made based on subtle considerations involving ability, maturity and parental involvement that researchers are unable to incorporate into their analyses. As a result, the disappointing outcomes of retained students may well reflect the reasons they were held back in the first place rather than the consequences of being retained.”

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  • The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit news organization that is focused on producing in-depth education journalism. It is an independently funded unit of Teachers College, Columbia University.

West comes to the following conclusion:

“Retained students continue to perform markedly better than their promoted peers when tested at the same grade level and, assuming they are as likely to graduate high school, stand to benefit from an additional year of instruction.”

The spread of stricter retention policies is connected to a wider movement to ensure all children are reading proficiently by third grade. The idea is based on research showing that children who don’t reach that target are often left behind as their classes move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

Retention is not the only, or even the main, instrument in the toolbox promoted by advocates in the reading-by-third-grade movement. Intensive interventions, including pulling struggling readers out of class for individual or small-group tutorials, have become increasingly popular in many schools around the country. More states are also enshrining efforts to identify struggling readers and provide them early interventions in the law, as Education Week has reported.

Even so, the use of retention, even as a last resort for students who aren’t reading well enough on time, is still fraught with problems, many experts say. A report on third-grade literacy policies by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), published in March, outlined what can go wrong with strict retention policies:

“While some researchers have found that retained students ‘can significantly improve their grade-level skills during their repeated year,’ others have found that less than half of retained students meet promotion standards after attending summer school and repeating a grade. Some research points to other negative effects, including a greater likelihood of bullying and victim behavior, or dropping out of high school.”

That is, assuming that retained students are no less likely than their peers to graduate from high school—which Professor West does—is not necessarily a good idea, according to the research.

In addition, the ECS report noted that minority and low-income students make up a disproportionate share of the students who are held back. “This raises serious questions about equity and the potential for prejudicing teachers’ attitudes toward the academic capabilities of retained students. Given these disparities, some view grade retention as punishing disadvantaged students who also may not have received the same quality of instruction as their more advantaged peers,” the ECS report said.

Educators have also questioned policies in which a decision to hold a student back is based solely on test scores.

In New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg touted his ending of “social promotion” in the 2003-04 school year, educators quietly ignored the policy change. In the years after social promotion was officially ended, the number of third-graders held back actually decreased significantly over time (from 3,601 in the first year to 480 in 2008-2009, according to the city’s statistics). This year, the mayor had a “change of heart” and ended the policy.

As one Florida superintendent, Doug Whittaker, put it to Education Week last March in a story about the spread of retention policies: “After 10 years, I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s good for kids … I don’t care how the adults frame it: The people making those decisions forget what it’s like to be 8 years old.”

Colorado’s READ Act

Colorado climbed on the early literacy bandwagon with passage of the Colorado READ Act.

The bill was the most significant piece of education legislation to pass the 2012 session, and it prompted lengthy debate over the effects of holding young students back. The measure was extensively amended in the Senate, primarily to add funding for school districts to implement the law.

The law is expected to cover up to 24,000 students. An estimated quarter of Colorado third-graders don’t read at grade level.

Key features of the READ Act:

  • This year, districts will report to the Colorado Department of Education the number of K-3 students with reading problems. The State Board of Education has until March 31 to define what constitutes a significant reading deficiency for the purposes of the law.
  • Starting in 2013-14, districts will annually assess K-3 students’ reading abilities with CDE-approved tests. The department is required to create a list of approved instructional programs and professional development programs that districts can use.
  • Individual READ plans have to be created for students with significant deficiencies. The law also creates a process for parent, teacher and administrator consultation to determine each year if students should advance to the next grade. Parents have the final say for K-2 students. Superintendents (or designated administrators) will review the cases of third-graders recommended for advancement and can decide to retain a student. Special services must be provided for third-graders who are held back.
  • The law contains protections and exemptions for students with disabilities, limited English proficiency or who have already been retained.
  • The program will divert interest revenue from the state school lands to provide about $16 million in per-pupil funding (about $700 per student) to districts working with students who have significant reading deficiencies. The law also includes some $5 million in funding to be used for CDE administration costs ($1 million) and for professional development grants to districts.
  • Districts receiving the per-pupil funding will be required to use specific interventions, such as enrollment in full-day kindergarten, summer school or tutoring.
  • For more information, read the full text of the new law, House Bill 12-1238

— Todd Engdahl, Capitol Editor, EdNews Colorado

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.