Threat of mass retention looms over ambitious Read by Grade 3 program

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels

At Fremont Elementary School in Carson City last week, four second-graders had gathered in a semi-circle at a table with their teacher.

While the rest of their classmates were working independently at their desks, teacher Susie Owens was guiding the small group as they stuck Post-It notes to a giant Venn diagram drawn on butcher paper. They were comparing and contrasting the elements of two stories they’d just read — one about Cinderella and the other a Cinderella story in which a dirty boot takes the place of a glass slipper.

“They’re both footwear,” one child announces, sticking a note to the middle of the diagram to mark overlap between the two stories. And then the group concluded the villains in both stories were siblings.

This is called “power hour,” and it’s Fremont Elementary’s way of implementing the Read by Grade 3 program Nevada launched in 2015. Using data from tests administered three times a year, Owens has pinpointed the specific areas of reading that her students are struggling with — whether that be reading speed, comprehension or certain vowel sounds — and has grouped students with similar weaknesses together for a series of custom small group lessons during the power hour.

As part of former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s effort to improve Nevada’s bottom-ranking public education system, the state has doled out tens of millions of dollars in grants to help districts ramp up their reading supports and ensure students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. It’s a pivotal age — almost 90 percent of high school dropouts had struggled with reading in the third grade, and many interventions offered later in life have low returns.

“Learning to read by the end of third grade is the gateway to lifelong success,” the Nevada Department of Education says in materials explaining the program. “When students are not able to read by the end of third grade, their risk of falling behind grows exponentially.”

An independent audit has recommended continuing the program, pointing out that 87 percent of school districts reported a decline in reading-deficient third graders at the end of last year, and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak wants to increase funding to $63 million in the coming biennium, up from $41 million now. But, more controversially, a provision of the law is about to kick in that would automatically retain thousands of children who don’t meet the standard — starting with the cohort of students that’s in second grade.

That means the students sitting in Owens' class right now. She’s proud of the fact that with her interventions and careful tracking, about 50 percent of the students she initially classified as deficient in reading have caught up, and she has high hopes that in the next year, the handful of remaining struggling students will be proficient enough to move to fourth grade.

But there are still a lot of unknowns.

“I’m very concerned about it,” Owens said. “What I’m concerned most about is they may lack a little in reading but be phenomenal in math and science and social studies. So I just don’t know how it’s going to work.”

Nevada lawmakers have introduced a bill, AB289, that would remove the retention mandate from Read by Grade 3. On one side are those who say retention doesn’t work and who fear complications from holding children back en masse.

“For some children, retention in kindergarten, first grade, second grade might work, but it's not the right thing for mass groups of children,” said Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a former teacher and co-sponsor of the bill removing mandatory retention. “There's better ways and more positive ways to handle this.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak has signaled he would be open to signing such a bill.

“It sounds good in theory, but in practicality, I don’t know if it’s going to work. I really don’t,” he said about retention during a January appearance at The Nevada Independent’s Indytalks forum.

On the other side are those who want to see the program through as written and fear the consequences of letting struggling readers continue forward on a shaky academic foundation. That group includes Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce CEO Ann Silver, who became an advocate after participating in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorship program.

At 19, her “little brother” struggles to read, which has complicated his quest to apply for jobs and study for a driver’s license. She wonders if his future would have opened up had he been held back a grade as a child.

“Repealing that possibility is going to deny the children the opportunity to succeed,” she said.

How it works

Nevada policymakers had been talking for years about implementing more supports to get students reading by third grade. But it wasn’t until 2015, when then-Gov. Brian Sandoval backed a package of tax increases and vowed $30 million to an early literacy program as part of a slate of more than two dozen education reforms, that Read by Grade 3 was born.

Designed with advice from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation ExcelinEd, the bill made Nevada one of 16 states and Washington D.C. that requires retention if a student is not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. The idea is that before third grade, students are learning to read, but after it, they need to read to learn.

“We learned from that 2011 study that it does not matter that children are poor,” Republican bill sponsor and then-Sen. Becky Harris testified at a 2015 legislative hearing. “What matters is whether they can read. Think about what this research is telling us. If we want to raise our graduation rate to 90 percent, early literacy is the key.”

In spite of concerns about the impact of retention, the bill passed almost unanimously, with only four anti-tax Republican Assembly members opposing it. The program is now in its second full year of implementation.

It relies heavily on data. Students in kindergarten through third grade are tested three times a year through the MAP Growth assessment. Parents are notified if the test concludes that the child has a reading deficiency.

All schools must designate a staff member to be a “literacy strategist” tasked with coaching fellow teachers on the best techniques for improving student learning and analyzing testing data. Sometimes that person is a classroom teacher with the strategist duties added onto their workload, and other times, the strategist is a standalone position.

Districts compete against each other for grants from the state, which can pay for a learning strategist or other interventions, such as tutors, professional development for teachers and parent training in early reading strategies and targeted intervention in regular classrooms. The program can also entail before and after-school reading programs, in-class interventions and summer school reading programs.

Along with the supports come a red line: Starting next school year, if a student scores a 2, 3 or 4 on the Smarter Balanced English language arts exam, he or she automatically is promoted to third grade.

But if they score a 1 — the “emerging / developing standards” category, they are candidates for retention. There are several “good cause exemptions” in the regulations that would allow a student who scores a 1 to still proceed to fourth grade:

  • They could score in the 31st percentile or higher on the MAP Growth reading assessment — an alternate exam that’s already used frequently in grades K-3 to identify low-performing readers and track their progress
  • They could demonstrate grade-level reading proficiency through a portfolio of work (as of late 2018, the education department said it planned to work with local stakeholders to develop a set of criteria for judging the portfolios)
  • They are considered “limited English proficient” and have had fewer than two years in an English language program
  • They have received two or more years of remediation and have been held back for two years
  • They have a disability and do not participate in the third grade Smarter Balanced ELA exam, or they do participate, but the child has previously been retained.

Exactly how many students could be retained at the end of next school year? Results from the MAP test identified 40 percent of third graders last school year as “struggling readers.” But only 27 percent of third graders scored “Level 1” on the Smarter Balanced assessment, meaning they would be considered for retention.

Of that group, about half were English learners and students with disabilities. That leaves 5,772 children statewide — or about 15 percent of test-takers — who would have been candidates for retention that year based on Smarter Balanced test results alone.

Woodhouse believes the sheer number of students who are on the brink has lawmakers who voted for the bill in 2015 wanting to change the law.

“I don't think it's cold feet. I think it's the reality of students who are not going to be successful at that point,” she said.

How is it going?

An independent audit released earlier this year showed that 71 percent of educators surveyed believed the program was benefiting students. At the same time, less than half felt they had enough time to meet the requirements of the program.

“I think in the beginning it was scary,” Fremont Elementary literacy specialist Pam Cowperthwaite told The Nevada Independent. “Teachers were scared ... and it was just one more thing they have to do … It was another mandate.”

At her school, there already was a program to boost struggling readers, but it wasn’t making a major difference for students. Teachers who learned they would have to come up with an “individualized literacy plan” for students who were behind weren’t sure what more they could do to lift up their students.

Carson City School District uses purple folders to track those plans, which indicate which interventions a student is receiving, their personal goals, and an action plan with roles for the student, teacher and parent. Teachers track how often they’re checking in with parents, and graph data about a student’s progress toward reaching a specific goal — such as reading more quickly.

The MAP tests, which have been used in Carson City School District for years but are now being given more frequently and have recently been adopted statewide, help pinpoint subcategories of reading where students need improvement.

“It'll tell you what skills they have and what skills they don't have. And once we show that to teachers, you didn't have to guess what the kid knew or didn't know,” said Nate Brigham, who leads the Read by Grade 3 initiative for the district.

Teachers have also started to develop a “bank” of techniques they can use as interventions to address specific issues that are tripping up readers and have become quicker at developing the individualized plan, Brigham said.

“I think one of the strongest aspects of Read by 3 was our K through 2 teachers have much better knowledge of what their kids can and can't do and are much more concerned with data than they were in the past,” he said.

But program administrators name other areas they think aren’t working. High on the list that the grants are competitive, instead of guaranteed for each district based on population.

“This is a state law and every school district should have the same opportunities,” Cowperthwaite said. “All of the students should have the same opportunities no matter where they go to school.”

As it stands now, a technical issue in writing the grant could prevent a district from receiving millions of dollars in resources from one year to the next. It happened recently for Carson City School District, cutting funds for interventionists and tutors and forcing the district to scramble to backfill some of the funding.

“You could definitely see an impact on the kiddos of not having those extra resources,” Brigham said. “It made a massive difference.”

The Nevada Department of Education has said it wants to fix the way it does grants, distributing them to all districts as a “formulaic grant” instead of making districts compete for them and potentially lose them from one year to the next.

Sisolak’s proposed infusion of more funding in the coming biennium would also help ensure there’s a full-time, dedicated learning strategist in every school in the state. Although the 2015 law requires each school designate a learning strategist, some are teachers who have to try the near-impossible task of fitting the duties of strategist into their schedule alongside their many other classroom teacher duties.

Ending automatic retention

From the time the bill emerged, the retention aspect has been controversial. Research on the benefits of retention is mixed, according to the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

The think tank points out that a 2013 study of Florida’s mandatory retention policy led to temporary academic gains, but only when accompanied by more effective teaching. A 2011 study from California found that retention in first and second grades was more strongly correlated to success. And a 2009 meta-analysis from RAND of 91 other studies found that retained students have a significantly increased chance of dropping out of school.

Some, like Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara, who came from Florida, are even more blunt with their conclusions.

“Look, the reality is this — retention doesn’t work,” he said. “Research doesn’t support retention. But then also research does not support social promotion. So where do you find that balance?”

Lawmakers in 2017 tried to repeal the retention portion of the program, but the effort stalled after Sandoval signaled he disapproved. This session, Assembly Education Committee Chairman Tyrone Thompson has introduced bill ending mandatory retention unless the parents agree the child should be held back.

Asked last week about his motivation for pulling out retention, Thompson said that he’s still working with stakeholders on changes to his bill and planned to have an amendment for it. He wouldn’t say whether retention will stay.

Meanwhile, groups including Excel in Ed, the Jeb Bush foundation that helped develop the initiative in the first place, are urging lawmakers to stay the course, even if the first wave of retentions is uncomfortable.

“There has to be a line in the sand,” said Tom Greene, Excel in Ed’s senior regional advocacy director.

Proponents say the program is calling for something unlike “old school retention.” The repeat year would be an intervention rather than punishment; something like having a student entering the intensive care unit of literacy instead of repeating the same concepts in the same way once again. They’ll also be placed with a highly qualified teacher.

“It sends a signal to teachers and parents that literacy isn’t important, if we don’t have all the accountability,” Greene said. “We mean business.”

They’ll have help from business groups, who don’t want the bill watered down.

“If the semantics [of retention] are the problem, let’s create a positive connotation,” said Silver. If students can’t read proficiently, she argues, “you’re condemned to a life of unemployment or underemployment.”

Brigham and Cowperthwaite said they’re starting to get more questions from parents who are worried their child will be affected. They have their own questions about how retention looks, too — if the policy will create a new class entirely of children who are retained, will the best teachers want to teach that?

The policy calls for the retention year to be one of intensive reading instruction. Will that bore children and break their spirits? And they don’t think the option allowed by the bill to move a child up to fourth grade midway through the year if they demonstrate they can read makes sense — children will be behind on other fourth-grade standards.

However the debate in the Legislature turns out, lawmakers are already seeing a sense of urgency among families about the upcoming retention deadline.

Owens, though, says teachers have always felt obligated to ensure their students are ready for their next step, even before Read by Grade 3 brought the threat of retention and obligated her to track her students’ progress meticulously.

“I think we always felt the pressure. You want every kid to do well,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any teacher that didn’t. We felt the pressure before purple folders. Because that’s why you teach. You teach because you want the kids to succeed.”


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