The AZ Department of Education released AzMERIT test scores to districts this week and results show 1,400 third-graders did not meet the “Move On When Reading” (MOWR) cut score required by ARS 15-701. The law requires all third graders in Arizona to read proficiently at grade level or be retained, with three exceptions. The exceptions pertain to English Language Learners, students under evaluation for a special education (SPED) referral or severe reading impairment, and those on Individual Education Plans (IEP.) The law also provides for remedial strategies and once a student demonstrates reading proficiency via a district-administered assessment, they can be promoted to the next grade.
Although MOWR was signed into law in 2010 and enacted by the Legislature in 2012 with the appropriation of approx. $40 million annually, it wasn’t until the 2013-14 school year that the retention was implemented. That year, close to 650 third-graders were eligible to be retained, but less than one percent were. During the 2014-15 school year, data from the new AzMERIT was not expected to be available until after the start of the next school year, so no third-graders were held back.
There can be no doubt that the ability to read, the earlier the better, is critical for a student’s success. Studies show that children who cannot read at grade level by the start of fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate on time. Third graders who live in a poor family for at least a year are six and a half times less likely to graduate on time and have much higher risk for dropping out. “While it is an urban myth that prison population projections are based on the number of third graders that cannot read” – high school dropouts were 63 times more likely to see the inside of prison walls than college graduates.
Social promotion, or “the practice of promoting a child to the next grade level regardless of skill mastery in the belief that it will promote self-esteem”, has numerous problems of its own. Among them are the potential for ill-educated students, providing parents a false sense of confidence, setting the bar low, and creating a false sense of accomplishment. While social promotion can help ensure students don’t drop out, the stark reality is that they’ll likely be no more prepared for a post-secondary education than if they had.
Retention of students though, is also very problematic. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), as many as 15 percent of U.S. students repeat a grade each year, and 30 to 50 percent of students are retained at least once before ninth grade. Nineteen empirical studies from the 1990s compared retained students with those promoted. The results showed grade retention negatively impacted all areas of achievement, from reading to math and language, and socio-emotional adjustments such as peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance.
So, it is critical for students to be able to read by the third grade, social promotion is the wrong solution, and retention should be the very last resort. What then is the answer? As is often the case with complex problems, we pretty much know what we need to do, we just don’t either want to do it, or don’t have the political will to do it. New America, a centrist nonprofit think tank and civic enterprise, says the solution requires “a comprehensive approach to literacy including attention to a wide range of factors, including teacher preparation and professional development; early identification of struggling students and intervention to support their success; comprehensive and shared assessments; language-rich and engaging reading curricula; provision of pre-K and full-day kindergarten; and school-community-family partnerships.”
The school-community-family partnerships are every bit as important as the rest of the approach since we know literacy and language gaps start well before kindergarten. Research has shown that children in families receiving public assistance hear as many as 30 million fewer words prior to entering kindergarten than their wealthier peers, putting them at an early disadvantage. Unfortunately, only 42 percent of four-year-olds and 15 percent of three-year-olds are served by public pre-K programs, including SPED and the federal Head Start program. Additionally, the quality of these programs varies significantly with most states requiring just a high school diploma for teachers of infants and toddlers.
New America published a report in 2015 called “From Crawling to Walking” which ranked states on birth to third-grade policies supporting strong readers. The report looked at seven policy areas influencing children’s literacy development: educators; standards, assessment and data; equitable funding; pre-K access and quality; full-day kindergarten access and quality; dual language learner supports; and third-grade reading laws. They then ranked states into three categories based on their progress toward achieving 65 policy indicators. Arizona was categorized in the “crawling” level, at 43rd in the nation. Some of the reasons were no requirement for specialized preparation in early childhood education (ECE) for administrators and ECE educators, pre-K programs not required to screen for dual language learners, and unfunded full-day kindergarten. This last item must carry much of the responsibility for Arizona’s 43rd ranking. In 2004, the state passed legislation creating funding for full-day kindergarten to increase availability, but in 2010, the Legislature eliminated the funding. This forced school districts to adapt by charging parents tuition for kindergarten, raising local property taxes, increasing class sizes, or reducing other areas of their budgets.
Unfortunately just like everything else today, it seems that early childhood education has been politicized beyond the ability to effectively solve the problem. The Republican Party’s platform committee recently added language that opposes public prekindergarten. Of the decision, one of the members of the committee said the party opposes pre-K because it “inserts the state in the family relationship in the very early stages of a child’s life.” This goes right to the heart of the Conservative belief that parents are responsible for what ails a child and they alone have responsibility to fix it. Democrats want proper funding and support to get the job done even if the parents don’t do it.
The primary argument against retention is that in most cases it doesn’t prove motivational to the student. There are multiple reasons for this but in the end, the failure to read at grade-level isn’t primarily the student’s fault. Sure they must accept some of the responsibility, but teachers, school administrators, parents, and district and state officials all share a large part of the responsibility.
A kindergarten teacher I know recently said: “It seems that they [the state] are leaving the school districts responsible for the fallout, without offering solutions, support, or resources. It’s like it’s your problem, now deal with it and let us hold you accountable if you don’t.” One of my Facebook friends phrased it another way: They starve the horse, and when he can’t pull the loaded wagon up the hill, they beat him to death and then pin the blame on him.
Ultimately, what makes the failure of the 1,400 students not meeting the cut score on AzMERIT so unacceptable is that we collectively know what to do to help them. No, the solutions aren’t simple, easy or cheap to implement, but let’s please not pretend we don’t know what they are. These kids may have “failed” the test, but we are failing them.