Reading bill modeled after Florida program reignites debate over social promotion

Bill would require third-graders to pass reading test in order to be promoted

lbonner@newsobserver.comJune 10, 2012 

  • It came from Florida Senate Bill 795, largely modeled after similar education reforms made in Florida, includes the following provisions: • Third-graders who fail end-of-grade reading tests would repeat the grade unless they fall under one of five “good cause” exemptions. • Ends teacher tenure. Teachers would work under contracts of up to four years. • Has local school districts set up merit pay systems. • State Board of Education must develop a plan to improve student reading, and an assessment for children entering kindergarten. • Schools would receive letter grades of A - F as part of an annual report card. • Establishes a state Teacher Corps to recruit recent graduates and mid-career professionals to teaching. • Adds five instructional days or the equivalent number of hours to the school year. • Provides a $250 tax deduction for teachers who spend their own money for school supplies. • State employees would have five hours a month leave to volunteer in a public school literacy program, under rules developed by the State Personnel Commission and with approval from the governor.

After second grade, much of elementary school is a drive toward end-of-grade exams. But the pressure to do well in third-grade reading will be heightened for students, parents and schools under a plan that could force thousands of students to repeat the grade.

The state Senate has approved a bill modeled on a Florida law that emphasizes competent reading by the end of third grade. Senate Republicans used a Florida reading program championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush as their blueprint. The Senate plan has multiple prongs, but a central focus is to stop promoting third-graders who are poor readers, with some specific exceptions.

It’s one of several education proposals modeled after Florida laws up for consideration this year. Another would allow more parents of disabled students to transfer their children from public to private school. Yet another would create tax breaks for corporations that contribute scholarship money for low-income students to move from public to private schools.

The reading bill came out of the Senate with a push from its most powerful members and is the closest to becoming law. If it passes, thousands of children could be sent to special reading camps and told to repeat the grade if they’re still failing.

More than 30 percent of the state’s third-graders failed the state end-of-grade reading test last year, but less than 3 percent repeated the grade.

Senate leader Phil Berger, the idea’s lead proponent, doesn’t envision schools holding back 30 percent of their third-graders. Far fewer would have to repeat the grade, he said, because of exemptions in the bill.

In the first year Florida implemented its plan, 13 percent of the state’s third-graders weren’t promoted.

Critics of the North Carolina legislation say it leaves out several elements thought to be crucial to Florida’s student achievement gains.

As part of a massive reading push instigated by Bush, Florida has substantially increased the money it sends directly to school districts for reading programs. Such programs will receive $130 million next year, compared with $89 million in 2005.

School districts use the money to pay for reading coaches, reading summer schools, and professional development, said Stu Greenberg, executive director of Florida’s Office of Early Learning.

More money needed?

The North Carolina proposal does not include money for training, coaches or a reading research center Bush promoted.

“It looks like advocates of the Florida approach are taking everything but the relevant pieces,” said Sherman Dorn, a professor at the University of South Florida who has watched the Florida literacy program grow and other states attempt to reproduce it. “All I can say is, ‘good luck.’ ”

Berger, who has taken the lead in shepherding the bill through the legislature, said all those elements aren’t needed.

“I don’t think we need to do things to the extent that Florida did them,” he said. Florida had to start from scratch, Berger said, but it has cut a path that makes it easier for other states to follow.

Florida’s program has become a blueprint for other states because its fourth-graders initially demonstrated significant gains on a national reading test, although the last few rounds of testing showed that those improvements have stalled.

The plan is also credited with closing the achievement gap between white students and Hispanic and African-American students.

Bush is an active promoter of what’s called “the Florida model” and started the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which helps spread the word. After the Senate here gave final approval to the plan last week, Bush sent out a message praising their work.

Staff at Bush’s foundation reviewed the Senate proposal and pronounced it sound, Berger said.

“All of the feedback we’ve received from them has been positive,” he said.

The N.C. Senate plan includes $33.9 million to be spent next year. Most of the money would be used to determine the reading abilities of all students from kindergarten through third grade. Expenses would grow to $59 million the following year, when the reading camps start and districts launch programs encouraging students to read while they’re at home.

Arguing over promotion

Making students repeat a grade is itself controversial, and opinion on whether it helps students is mixed.

Senate leaders say it is wrong to promote third-graders who are poor readers because they won’t be able to learn through reading in higher grades. Critics say holding back students discourages them and that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of school when they get older.

The State Board of Education used to have a policy aimed at preventing social promotion but dropped it in 2010 because it wasn’t being enforced. State education officials say they don’t want to go back to it.

The policy allowed for appeals of decisions to hold children back and for local principals to promote children who failed the test. Schools promoted students who attended summer school even if they did not pass tests given at the end of the summer session.

The Senate bill has been harshly criticized by 19 faculty members at UNC Wilmington’s school of education. They prepared a 23-point critique that said the bill was wrong-headed on social promotion because “retention is costly to the child and society and never works.”

“I have never seen a bill that is so blatantly damaging to K-12 education,” said Debbie Powell, an associate professor of language and literacy at UNC Wilmington. The policy would hit minority students hardest, she said, and limit teacher creativity in classrooms.

At a State Board of Education meeting last week, Chairman Bill Harrison mentioned the many improvements the state is already working on, and suggested the state doesn’t need to adopt the Florida model.

“The last thing we got from Florida was Butch Davis. ... And, you know, do we want to make the same mistake again?” he quipped.

The reason people say retention doesn’t work is because children haven’t had the kind of ongoing support to improve their reading provided in the Senate plan, Berger said. Children who don’t pass the third-grade test would have chances to catch up in the summer camp and with intensive reading instruction the following fall. The proposal allows for midyear promotion to fourth grade for children who make up enough ground.

Focus on literacy

At Turner Creek Elementary School in Cary, Karen Berryman’s second-grade class is already preparing for third-grade reading. Children are reading more nonfiction books, which will be an emphasis next year.

Last week, a small group of students opened “Why Polar Bears Like Snow: And Flamingos Don’t” and answered Berryman’s questions about finding information in the nonfiction book. As they talked, other students worked on a variety of reading and writing activities.

The hourlong focus on literacy is structured so that all students will work with Berryman, read on their own, read aloud to a friend, write, and read a book on a computer.

Students are also building their endurance in preparation for the hours of focus required for the end-of-grade exam next year, said principal Lisa Spalding.

“Children need to read at third-grade level just to make it in the world,” Spalding said.

Turner Creek students pass end-of-grade exams at a higher rate than both the Wake County and state averages. Nearly 85 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the reading test last year, compared with 73 percent in the county and 67.6 percent statewide.

In some of the state’s elementary schools, fewer than half of the third-graders pass.

Even if a few dozen students at Turner Creek were to face repeating third grade, Spalding said she was not yet certain how the school would adapt.

June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, disagrees with the retention requirement, and would prefer that the state focus on a plan to offer students who struggle with reading a chance to attend summer reading camps in their early elementary years. Students’ reading ability slides over the summer if they don’t have books or an adult who reads to them, she said.

“We need to create a culture where it’s not punishment for students to have extended learning,” she said. “It’s a way to prioritize learning for every single child in our state.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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