Kristin Klopfenstein is the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado.
Debate is continuing to fly over a proposed bill to retain third-grade students who don’t pass state reading tests. It’s no wonder. The bill has the potential to have deep, lasting effects on children, teachers, and school budgets.
Like many education issues, this one involves competing ideologies, with each side arguing that its position is best for children and warning of dire consequences if another path is taken. Will third-graders who are promoted despite failing the reading test founder in higher grades as they struggle to read more advanced assignments, raising the odds they will drop out? Or does repeating a grade put them at higher risk of boredom, social isolation, and disengagement from school, also raising the odds they will drop out? Who wants to configure a path between those two scenarios? Both assume that the system expects some level of failure.
Those who favor a line-in-the-sand approach to reading by third grade argue that the threat of retention would encourage schools to work harder at prevention. There are lots of interventions schools can put in place to catch and remediate reading problems starting in the earliest grades when it is easiest to catch up, in hopes of averting a third-grade showdown altogether. Colorado already requires schools to monitor early literacy skills; I hope the new bill includes enough prevention measures to ensure that retention is a rare, last-resort response affecting as few students as possible.
The challenges of getting this legislation right are fresh in my mind because my organization wrote a policy brief on the topic a few months ago and we sorted through a lot of the big questions and related research then. Even the title, “Student Retention vs. Social Promotion: A False Dichotomy,” hints at how complex and nuanced we found the issues to be.
We came across several well-reasoned, balanced pieces that explored the issues from a policy-making perspective, such as a 2009 RAND report on lessons learned that was part of a study of New York City’s promotion and retention policy and a 1999 report from the U.S. Department of Education that is still useful despite its age.
As the parent of a second-grader I know how anxious parents and teachers are for children to learn to read well – and how that anxiety transfers to the kids working to figure out the complex process of reading. In the case of this bill, I’m pulling for lawmakers to take all the time they need to digest the findings of rigorous research, listen to educators and other stakeholders, and assess the experience of other states to produce the best bill possible.
Thousands of Colorado kiddos are counting on it.