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Bill would give districts authority to hold back 3rd graders

February 10, 2012

The Colorado legislature is considering a bill that would give districts more teeth to retain third graders who can’t read.

The Early Literacy Act legislation, backed by Democrats and Republicans and several major children’s education advocacy groups, was introduced in the Colorado House Tuesday.

Students who have significant reading deficiencies would no longer advance to fourth grade if a teacher, principal and superintendent sign off on the decision. In kindergarten, first and second grades, educators could suggest retention, but parents could override it. At the end of third grade, the parents could not waive the educators’ decision.

The act also would strengthen intervention programs in grades K-3 to help students progress.

The policy would take effect with the 2013 kindergarten class.

Why the emphasis on third grade?

“After third grade students stop learning to read and start reading to learn,” says Sonja Semion, spokeswoman for the Denver-based Stand for Children.

Reading at grade level by end of third grade is the strongest indicator of a student’s likelihood to graduate high school. Ninety percent of high school dropouts nationwide could not read on grade level at the end of third grade.

“We need to stop lying to kids that they have skills to succeed when they don’t,” says Tim Taylor, president of Denver-based Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit group of business leaders that support education reforms to improve college and workforce readiness.

In Colorado, only two percent of students are held back, he notes. But severe reading problems is a main reason that nearly 28 percent of Colorado students do not graduate from high school. Most were thought to be functionally illiterate at the end of third grade.

“Teachers have told us that when classrooms have numbers of non-reading  students, it harms the entire class,” Taylor said. “The teachers have to slow learning down and use videos for content, which deprives the other students of reading to learn.”

Educators believe the bill is moving in the right direction.

Bruce Caughey, executive director of Colorado Association of  School Executives, says his group is likely to support the legislation, and will address it at a meeting next week.

“I’ve met with the superintendents and they already are having the hard conversations with parents and students.”

The big question, he said, is funding. “Will there be state money for the resources that will be needed? Reading is very individualized, and schools will need lots of arrows in the quiver to deliver different approaches.”  

Caughey said that early childhood development is vital, including preschool — particularly for at-risk children. Even kindergarten is only partly funded by the state, creating inequalities with some districts paying for all day and others not doing so.

Mike Wetzel, spokesman for the Colorado Education Association said that organization is having ongoing discussions with legislators who crafted the bill.

“We’re excited that early childhood literacy is under a spotlight in Colorado,” Wetzel said. “Early childhood literacy is a topic of huge importance for all CEA members. A child’s proficiency in reading is a key foundation for all future learning, and a strong indicator as to whether or not a child will succeed in school and graduate.

“Our members are very passionate in telling us their hopes for early childhood literacy legislation and their strong desire that new programs give teachers the time, training and resources they need to lift up struggling readers.”  

The law would replace the 1996 Colorado Basic Literacy Act.

“The old literacy act was designed to see that students had the skills needed by third grade, but unfortunately it hasn’t had the desired effect,” Taylor said. It has varied widely in execution among districts and schools, which in Colorado have much autonomy.

Under the proposed legislation, student growth and achievement in K-3 reading would be part of district and school accreditation.

Also, teachers and schools would be required to use special diagnostics to develop a READ program (Reading to Ensure Academic Development) for students identified as at-risk for having a severe reading deficiency. The state would  provide a resource bank of intervention plans for teachers to use in creating improvement plans for the students.

The students would be identified using multiple measures, including their grades, new literacy assessments, CSAPs and other measures. There would be good cause exemptions for students based on specific criteria (such as special needs).

Colorado and other states are rethinking the promotion and retention issue as they grapple with ways to come in compliance with federal government mandates that they must narrow the achievement gap and prepare kids for graduation, college and productive futures.

There have been successes nationally in narrowing that gap in a number of large urban districts and states such as Florida, by retaining kids until they are proficient.

Semion noted that Colorado has one of the highest achievement gaps, with 79 percent of white students proficient, compared to 50 percent for black, Hispanic and American Indian students.

By 2021, children of color are expected to represent the majority of Colorado students.

Sponsors of the Early Literacy Act legislation are House Education Committee Chair Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. It’s being carried in the Senate by Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

Groups supporting it are Colorado Succeeds; Stand for Children Colorado; Colorado Children’s Campaign; Colorado Concern, and Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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