States

Fla., Texas Retain 3rd GradersWith Poor Reading Scores

By Karla Scoon Reid — September 03, 2003 4 min read
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Thousands of children in Florida and Texas are repeating 3rd grade this fall after failing to meet state promotion requirements mandated for the first time this year.

Both states are taking a strict approach by linking 3rd graders’ reading ability, as measured by state assessments, to their chances of progressing in school. With 43,000 Florida students and 11,700 Texas pupils failing to make the grade, schools offered specialized summer reading programs to help the youngsters raise their achievement enough to move on to 4th grade. (“Fla. Summer Campers Tackle the Books,” July 9, 2003.)

As students returned to class in August, officials in Texas and Florida were still totaling how many students would be held back. Some local newspaper reports estimated that 32,000 Florida students would repeat 3rd grade, or 16 percent of the state’s 192,711 3rd graders. In Texas, fewer than 4 percent of 3rd graders could be held back.

The potential retention of thousands of Florida 3rd graders sparked complaints that dropout rates would skyrocket. Protesters led students in a “read-in” in the foyer of Gov. Jeb Bush’s office last month.

“We’re gambling with these children,” said Sen. Frederica S. Wilson, a Miami Democrat, who took children from South Florida to read for the Republican governor in Tallahassee. “We will be sorry, because we have lost a group of children that could have been saved.”

But Frances Marine, the press secretary for the Florida Department of Education, said the state could not afford to pass children to the next grade when they can’t read independently in 3rd grade and are likely to fall further behind. “We have essentially drawn a line in the sand,” Ms. Marine said. “Reading is so vital ... we had to take decisive action now.”

Making the Grade

In Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, and Texas, students’ performance on state tests determined their promotion to the next grade.

In Delaware, 869 students in grades 3, 5, and 8 are being held back as the school year begins because they could not meet the state’s promotion standard in reading.

State test results in Missouri and North Carolina are used to trigger academic intervention for students. Local school officials decide if a student is promoted or retained.

But Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Delaware use results of their tests, which students can take multiple times, as the key factors in determining students’ promotion. Local administrators have some say in determining student retentions, and parents can appeal the decisions in those states. Appeals procedures and alternative avenues for promotion can be fairly prescriptive, however.

“Knowing that no test is absolutely perfect, ... those kinds of safety nets give you more confidence that you’ve done the right thing,” said Scott Norton, the director of standards and assessments for the Louisiana Department of Education.

Louisiana has used its high-stakes assessment to determine student promotion since 2000. This year, about 18,000 of Louisiana’s 4th and 8th graders are being held back for failing to meet the state’s achievement level on English and mathematics assessments.

Although the promotion policy touched off several unsuccessful lawsuits, Mr. Norton said opposition to the requirements has died down. (“Third Time No Charm for Some La. Students,” July 9, 2003).

Critics of the Florida retention requirement continue to decry the use of a test score to determine a child’s promotion to the next grade. Ms. Marine of the state education department emphasized that teachers can create portfolios of students’ work to demonstrate that they do have the ability to meet the state standard.

Few educators considered portfolios to be a viable option, countered Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Only a small percentage of students are expected to be promoted based on their portfolio work.

“The only thing that’s been discussed is that you had to pass the test to go through to the 4th grade,” Mr. Pudlow said.

A. Gary Dworkin, a University of Houston sociology professor whose research found that retained students in Texas outperformed their classmates who had received so-called social promotions, said states are tying promotion decisions to assessment scores because the test results are easily quantifiable.

He cautioned that states may need more “safeguards” or indicators to identify which children should be held back.

Florida districts are required to offer alternative instruction for retained students. In Broward County, 2,472 3rd graders--or 12 percent of that class--are being held back and will get double doses of reading this year.

Superintendent Frank Till said the 279,000-student district would spend up to $5 million on the reading program for 3rd graders.

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