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Proposed State Education Reform Ends Social Promotion For 3rd Graders

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DES MOINES, Iowa - The accountability piece of Gov. Terry Branstad's proposed third grade literacy reform identifying students who aren't reading at grade level has support, but it's the "or else" aspect that draws mixed reactions.

The proposal ends social promotion for third-graders who read poorly.

"My first reaction was to be scared," said Sarah Evans, a third-grade teacher at Wright Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. "I have a lot of questions about it more than strong feelings."

According to the draft of Branstad's education blueprint, released earlier this month, third grade literacy is a key factor of increased student achievement.

The plan would require all districts to adopt district wide and research-based reading program for early childhood learning and elementary grades, but only third grade students are required to take a reading assessment each spring that determines if they advance to fourth grade.

"Being able to read after third grade is a critical juncture where children transition from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn,'" according to the blueprint. "Moving children along who are not ready to do that puts them at a huge disadvantage for the rest of their lives."

Iowa's proposal is modeled after Florida, which began implementing reforms in 1999. Among those was ending social promotion for third-graders in 2002.

"That first year was pretty tough," said Jaryn Emhof, the communications director for the Foundation for Florida's Future. "We went from 2 percent retention to over 13 percent."

Emhof said the public's initial focus was on the retention piece not the fact that 30 percent of the state's third grade students were functioning illiterates, according to Florida's Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

"Retention isn't easy, but you can focus on retention or you can focus on student learning," Emhof said. "You come to a point where you have to draw a line in the sand. What's the bigger tragedy? Keeping a student back a year or keep moving them through the system without the academic skills they need to be successful?"

Branstad's special assistant for education, Linda Fandel, agrees with that sentiment. Fandel told a group of Eastern Iowa administrators Oct. 4 she initially didn't support retaining students until she saw Florida's results.

According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average reading score of fourth-grade students in Iowa was 221. Florida's fourth grade average was 226 that same year. The percentage of Florida's third-graders held back for poor literacy skills decreased to 5.9 percent in 2009.

Still, despite these successes, Florida has one of the highest dropout rates in the country.

"Our graduation rates have improved, but they're not anywhere close to where we want them to be," Emhof said.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said that's one reason why Iowa should consider other options.

"There's no data that says retention helps student achievement," Mascher said. "To fail students makes no sense at all. I don't understand the rationale for it or any evidence that it works."

Iowa's proposal makes exception for students learning English or those with disabilities. Students who can read but fail the exam will be allowed to use a portfolio to demonstrate their literacy skills.

Even with these exceptions, some students will be retained.These students will have the opportunity to attend a summer reading camp. If they demonstrate literacy skills at the end of the summer, they will move up to fourth grade.

Schools will be allowed to promote retained students to fourth grade during the school year once they can read. Tammy Wawro, president of the Cedar Rapids Education Association, questions the message that sends to students.

"If you move a child up midyear, it says nothing else about that curriculum was important," Wawro said. "Not science, not math it was all about the reading."

Susan Caruthers, a mother of three Iowa City school district students, also has concerns with the subjects students will repeat in third grade and miss if they transfer to fourth grade midway through the year.

"Students learn at their own pace," Caruthers said. "Maybe instead of holding kids back, schools look at how they're being taught. Are teachers able to help students who are struggling? I'm all for students being able to read, but maybe we need to look at the system can we reduce class sizes or extend the school year? before we hold students back."

Robin Gandy, a third-grade teacher at Erskine Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, taught in California for 15 years, the last five during which the state enacted its student retention policy.

"I never had a third-grader who couldn't read," Gandy said.

For that reason, she isn't opposed to the idea, but questions if third grade is too late.

"I'm not set up to teach them how to read in third grade," Gandy said. "I'm set up to teach them how to be a better reader."

Funding is a concern, too. Several Eastern Iowa school districts discontinued their summer programs to save money. Even Florida has cut funding for its summer reading camps. In previous years, the state funded summer school to all first, second and third-graders who needed assistance with reading. As of 2009, it's only available to third-graders who did not meet proficiency on the FCAT.

"If they don't put additional dollars into the support system, this won't work," Mascher said. "The supports are thing the things that will bring results. That's what's going to make a difference, not retention."

Iowa isn't the only state to consider adopting some of Florida's strategies. Lawmakers in Arizona and Colorado have voted to adopt some of the state's reforms. The reforms are being discussed in Colorado, New Mexico and Wisconsin

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