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

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.