"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." – Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Alabama Joins the Third-Grade Punishment Club

Twenty-Eight states have some sort of third-grade retention law according to the outdated (4/16/19) Third-Grade Reading Legislation page on the National Conference of State Legislatures website. The laws state that third-graders must pass a reading test showing that they can read at "grade level" before they will be allowed to move to fourth grade. Most have exceptions for students who are identified as learning disabled, English language learners, or have some other "rational reason" for not being failed by the adults in their school or school system.

Alabama is listed as "pending" on the website but will go into effect in the 2021-22 school year. To warn parents that this is going to happen AL.com posted an article (on Monday, June 7) that explains what the new law will mean.

There's a lot of discussion in the article about how teachers are now going to be giving struggling students extra support in K, 1, 2, and 3 (question: Isn't this something that should already be happening?) to make sure they can pass the test in Grade 3. This has to be done, because, apparently in Alabama, fourth-grade teachers aren't qualified to teach reading.

What parents need to know about Alabama’s third grade reading retention law
Teachers in fourth grade and beyond expect children to be able to read subject-level content and aren’t necessarily trained themselves in interventions.

“When they encounter struggling readers,” she said, “they don’t necessarily know how to teach students to read.”
This is followed by ways that "your child" can get around the law by retaking the test if they failed, being learning disabled in reading, an English language learner in the first two years of their language acquisition, or having already been retained at least twice in their primary grades (K-3).

Oh, and the early intervention will help the child so they don't even know they were struggling.
But when a child’s struggle to read is identified early, as is required now by law, and the child gets the support they need early, the child never knows they ever struggled.

(This last point might actually be helpful for students if they could make it happen...that is until they come up against the third-grade test and have to search around for something to use to get out of taking it.)

And how is it that someone who has already been retained twice in the first four years of their formal schooling hasn't been referred to special services? Perhaps it's because the U.S. Congress has never paid what they promised for Special Education.

Surely the new law which requires "individualized reading plans" for struggling students in kindergarten, first, and second grade won't have children who will need to be retained. Here's the rub...teachers are now required to use the "state-approved" test on students instead of their own assessments. Alabama is joining the nationwide chorus denying that teachers have expertise in teaching. Accordingly, a teacher's professional opinion about how a child is doing in their class isn't as good as the result of the state-approved test.

And there's this...Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee wants to one-up the states by retaining kids in second grade before they are retained in third grade because "third grade is too late."

But I digress...


Common sense tells non-educators (and many educators as well) that, if a child is falling behind we need to give them a chance to "catch up." Logically, letting a student repeat a year in school should be beneficial.

Unfortunately, education, the human brain, and young children don't work that way. In studies going back decades, retention in grade has been found to have either no impact or a negative impact on a child's achievement. Even studies that supposedly show a benefit to retention generally, upon closer inspection, show that without herculean efforts by the student and their teachers the child will still be behind.

The common sense is wrong.

As an example, here's information from a 2014 study done by the researchers at Notre Dame.

New research suggests repeating elementary school grades — even kindergarten — is harmful

Common sense tells us that early retention is better than late retention. Are younger kids so much more resilient that they don't really notice if they're not promoted along with their peers? Most in-grade retentions in the U.S. are done in first or second grade. What did the researcher, Notre Dame's Megan Andrews, find?

She looked at more than 37,000 children across the United States from two older multi-year surveys (NLSY 1979 and NELS 1988) and found that about 10 percent had been held back at school, most of them during the 1980s. The surveys included details of the family characteristics of the children. That allowed Andrew to create 6,500 matched pairs of students, where the retained and non-retained students had similar backgrounds. Their mothers had attained the same level of education and their families had the same household income. The students had scored the same on a pre-school cognitive test. (In layman’s terms, they started school with similar IQs). The matched students also had similar behavioral problems, as reported on the surveys. Home environment, gender and race were factored in, too. In other words, Andrew matched the held-back students with students who were equally “at risk” for being held back, but weren’t.

Then Andrew looked at whether these matched students eventually graduated from high school. And that’s where she found that the held-back children were 60 percent less likely to have graduated from high school than their matched “partners” who stayed on grade level. Andrew went one further to see if she could reproduce the results in a different way. Using the 1979 data survey, which included sibling information, she compared children who were held back with their siblings who weren’t held back. Again, she found the same result. Even in the same family, held-back kids were 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than their brothers and sisters. Astonishing!

Andrew acknowledges that held-back students often show a short-term boost in their grades and test scores, but she believes this boost “disappears” after just a few years. A sociologist by training, Andrew hypothesizes that being held back is so psychologically scarring that many students fail to regain their confidence in the long-term. In her paper Andrews argues that being held back is a one of the biggest negative events of a child’s life. “In surveys, students rank being retained in grade second only to a parent’s death in seriousness in some cases,” Andrews wrote.

The fact that this research generally backs up what others have found makes it all the more important that we end the practice once and for all. (see here, here, and here for three more examples. See my bibliography on grade retention, here.)


The question then remains, what do we do when students learn too slowly or can't keep up with their peers.

One thing we can do is use the process described in the AL.com article. Introduce intensive intervention as early as possible for students having trouble. A helpful difference would be to 1) continue the process throughout the grades where it's needed and 2) don't punish students for not learning. When a student needs more than intervention supplies, increase it. When special services are necessary -- and I would suggest that any school that retains children more than once doesn't know how to identify children for special services -- provide it. We have to stop punishing children with the inappropriate and inadequate intervention of retention because we're not willing to spend the money to help them.

Oh, and every fourth-grade teacher that I ever worked with (during four decades in K-6 schools) knew how to teach reading or knew where to go for help. So did the fifth and sixth-grade teachers. If Alabama's upper elementary teachers don't know how to teach reading then there's something wrong with the teacher training institutions in Alabama. My guess is that the people who claim that only primary teachers know how to teach reading don't know what they're talking about.

And who will be the children who are punished? Research into retention suggests that they will be mostly boys and mostly black. What is it about being a black male in America...but again, I digress.

We could, and probably should adopt some of the techniques used in high achieving nations for our own schools. Finland, for example, used research from the United States to improve its school system. We don't.

Finnish educator Pasi Sahberg, along with Timothy Walker, an American who moved to Finland to teach, have written a new book titled, In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish Way to World-Class Schools. In it they discuss ways to help children who are struggling...they use special education.
Intensified support consists of remedial support by the teacher, coteaching with the special education teacher, and individual or small-group learning with a part-time special education teacher. Special support includes a wide range of special education services, from full-time general education to placement in a special institution. All students in this category are assigned an Individual Learning Plan that takes into account the characteristics of each learner and personalizes learning according to ability.


The Alabama attempt at this, using Individualized Reading Plans without additional support. The classroom teacher is supposed to take care of the whole thing. This is typical of the U.S. -- We require more from teachers without providing more support. Our children aren't a high enough priority for us to spend the money needed to assure their success.

We're failing our children because we're too cheap. Then we blame the student for learning at their own rate and punish them with retention. We are shortchanging our own future.


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