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Colo. Bill Would Require Reading Tests for Young Children

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Colorado legislation has sparked a statewide debate over the merits of high-stakes testing for young students.

Under a proposal being debated last week in the Senate education committee, the state would develop tests to measure the reading "readiness" of kindergartners and the literacy of students in grades 1-3.

School districts would be required to tailor individual plans to help students who were reading below grade level.

"It is critical that all boys and girls be able to read when they leave 3rd grade," said Sen. Al Meiklejohn, the committee chairman and a sponsor of the bill. "There really is not much more to it than that. If they can't read by the time they leave 3rd grade, it can only be 'fireman's reform' from there on out for the child."

The bill cleared the House last month, 47-13, but lawmakers first struck a controversial provision that would have prohibited 3rd-grade students from advancing to 4th grade if they did not pass the reading test.

Instead, the legislation now requires only that failing students remain in 3rd-grade reading classes.

Mr. Meiklejohn said he was still undecided about whether he would try to insert the original grade-retention language.

"As I'm talking to you, I kind of doubt it," he said last week. "But I don't know yet. I'll have to listen to the testimony."

Narrowing the Curriculum?

The bill's opponents say it would prove expensive for districts and rob them of local control. They also argue that testing children at early ages is counterproductive, forcing teachers to narrow the curriculum and use testlike formats such as worksheets.

"Kids learn at different speeds," said Rep. Wayne Knox, a retired teacher. "And there are all kinds of individual differences that have to be considered," including the students' home environment and whether English is their native language.

The scores of Colorado's 4th graders on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests were similar to nationwide results, with 44 percent of the state's students reading below the basic level.

Setting Benchmarks

In recent years, Colorado has not seen legislation proposing high-stakes testing of young children--such as that used to make decisions about placement or promotion. However, lawmakers in other states frequently make such proposals hoping to boost academic achievement, said Lorrie A. Shepard, a research professor at the University of Colorado's school of education in Boulder.

"This is a recurring story that is not supported by research," Ms. Shepard said. "It is contradicted by research."

Literacy is also a buzzword this year in Texas, where Gov. George W. Bush has proposed targeting $29 million in federal funds to improve basic reading skills and spending $35 million in state money to create reading "academies" in schools.

Like the Colorado legislators, Gov. Bush has made the 3rd grade a benchmark.

"My goal is for our children to read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade," Gov. Bush said in announcing his plan last month. "And then we must keep them reading on grade level throughout their public school careers."

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