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FCAT third-grade reading law questioned

Susan Notes:

And now a word from reality-based research: The research stretching over a 60-plus-year period has consistently demonstrated the same thing: that retention in grade does not improve performance in subsequent years' achievement and bears a strong relationship to dropping out of school later. No other body or research is so strongly one-sided.

Monty Neill Comment: This is an important article. A few years ago Jay Greene argued that one year after retention, the data showed retention worked. Some of us recognized that one-year data is often misleading on retention because scores typically do go up for those who are retained. The problems are that the gains evaporate after a few years, those retained are more likely to drop out - in short, retention does not work academically and produces psychological and emotional damage. I'd been wondering recently why Greene had not released the follow-up he had (if memory serves) said he would. The story below might explain why: a study by Mary Lee Smith finds that retention does not work.

A note - toward the end a teacher is quoted who says that those retained have done better. This is a not uncommon teacher observation - the problem is what happens later when those students are out of the classroom.

By Nirvi Shah and Hannah Sampson

Five years after a state law required school districts to make third-graders who fail the reading FCAT repeat the year, questions remain about whether the strict rule that has affected tens of thousands of students is effective.

Soon after the law was enacted, the state trumpeted stories of parents initially upset by the retention who later were pleased. But a recent Miami-Dade study that followed the first group of retained students concluded that retention only improves student achievement initially.

''It appears now that the gains have essentially disappeared,'' the study states.

A similar Broward study that tracked the first group of retained students -- who just finished seventh grade -- also found that as they have grown up, their attendance rate in school has dropped and their suspension rate has risen.

State data show that for students who have repeated third grade -- despite the extra year in elementary school -- nearly half fail the reading test as fourth-graders.

Arizona State University Professor Mary Lee Smith studied Florida's law the year after it was enacted and has continued monitoring its effects. In 2004, her policy brief recommended the law be repealed.

Four years later, Smith's objections are the same.

"The research stretching over a 60-plus-year period has consistently demonstrated the same thing: that retention in grade does not improve performance in subsequent years' achievement and bears a strong relationship to dropping out of school later,'' Smith wrote in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. ``No other body or research is so strongly one-sided, yet policy makers and politicians point to it as a way to improve performance.''

She said many other strategies, including small class sizes, high quality preschools, good teachers, remediation on academic skills before and after school and tutoring are better than retention as long as they are not teaching to the test.

Policies like Florida's dot the country. In New York City, for the last four years, third-graders who score in the lowest of four levels on English and math tests have been required to repeat the grade unless they score higher after summer school or if teachers appeal.


Florida's law was meant to end ''social promotion'' -- moving students from grade to grade to keep them with students their own age, whether or not they had mastered the material.

As a result, students can spend up to three years in third grade because they failed the reading section of the FCAT.

At sites around South Florida, third-graders are attending summer classes to help them improve their reading skills.

Some have already been promoted for other reasons, but some need the extra help to make it into fourth grade in August.

On Friday, students at Coral Cove Elementary in Miramar were clustered in groups, some taking practice tests on computers, some reading out loud with a partner and others sitting at a table reading with the teacher.

Zayin Henry and De'Marius Collier sat next to each other at computers doing practice tests. They could click on words in the stories to hear their pronunciation or click on bolded words to hear that plus the definition.

''It's helping us read better,'' said De'Marius, 9.

Zayin, 11, said he knows the camp has been helpful.

''It's like when we read, it doesn't come out the other ear,'' he said. ``We keep it in the brain.''

A cluster of students gathered around teacher Susan Novell and took turns reading aloud about earthquakes and the earth's tectonic plates. Novell stopped to ask them why earthquakes happen, and guided them back to the passage that explains the cause.

She said the effectiveness of retention depends on the student.

''There are some children who need another growth year,'' she said. ``Other children I can see where it's not the appropriate thing to do.''

The year before the law went into effect, about 6,500 third-graders were held back when the decision was in the hands of districts, principals and teachers.

The following year, the number shot up to nearly 28,000. It has declined to about half that.

This year, nearly 33,000 students statewide scored at the lowest level on the reading FCAT, including almost 6,000 in Miami-Dade and about 3,100 in Broward, though they will not all be held back.

In Broward, about half of the third-graders facing retention this year will go to fourth grade for several reasons. Some may be learning English as a second language or have disabilities. Students who have already been held back twice also can move on.

Maitte Medina-LaSanta, a third-grade teacher at Pasadena Lakes Elementary in Pembroke Pines teaching summer camp at Coral Cove, said the two kids in her class last school year who had been retained both showed ''tremendous'' gains on the FCAT and tested at grade level. In her experience, retention has been successful for kids she has taught.

Richard Kidney teaches first grade at Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar and is teaching the reading camp at Coral Cove this summer. On the board in his summer classroom, he has written several key words that relate to reading, including: Always do your best.

''We want to build them up, and we don't want to devastate them with not being successful,'' Kidney said.


Broward School Board Chairwoman Robin Bartleman said she thinks the money devoted to summer reading camps -- Broward is spending more than $1 million this year -- would be better spent helping younger students. By third grade, she thinks students are already too far behind.

Bartleman's experience as an assistant principal triggered the creation of a special program for retained Broward third-graders that provides counseling along with the state-mandated repeat of the year.

''We always seem to focus on the academic side. It was really important for me to focus on the social and emotional side,'' said Bartleman, who worked at a Liberty City elementary school for four years. ``A kid isn't just a test score.''

— Nirvi Shah and Hannah Sampson
Miami Herald


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