Up until the third grade, students are learning to read. After that, they should be reading to learn.
That is why in 2015 Nevada lawmakers passed a bill dubbed Read by 3, requiring schools to have students who have not achieved a certain level of literacy to be retained in the third grade. It was modeled after a law passed in Florida in 2002 that quickly increased reading proficiency by catching deficiencies early and providing extra tutoring — greatly reducing third grade illiteracy in less than a decade.
Back in 2011 former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal explaining the purpose of the law and what it had accomplished already, “While preparing kids for college and careers starts on the first day of kindergarten, the first good indicator of their chances for success may come in fourth grade. That is when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.”
Bush recounted, “Florida ended automatic, ‘social’ promotion for third-grade students who couldn’t read. Again, the opposition to this hard-edged policy was fierce. Holding back illiterate students seemed to generate a far greater outcry than did the disturbing reality that more than 25% of students couldn’t read by the time they entered fourth grade. But today? According to Florida state reading tests, illiteracy in the third grade is down to 16%.”
In order to give students, parents and teachers a chance to prepare, Nevada’s law does not go into effect until July 1, 2019.
If the law had been in effect a year ago, according to newspaper accounts, 55 percent of third graders statewide could have been eligible for retention, while this year the percentage is said to be 29 percent, though about half could qualify for what are called “good-cause” exemptions.
In 2017 Democratic lawmakers were unsuccessful in an attempt to repeal the law. At the time, Gov. Brain Sandoval, an ardent backer of the original bill, put out a statement saying, “The Read by Grade 3 initiative placed nearly $30 million directly in classrooms in more than 300 schools across Nevada with a clear line of accountability and singular focus on developmental reading. The Governor will not compromise on the goal of ensuring every student in Nevada is reading at grade level by third grade.”
Nevada’s State Board of Education may have just watered down the law with its recent policy determinations. The law requires the board to select a standard reading examination and set a cut-off score for promotion to the fourth grade.
According to a board press release, the test to be used under the law beginning in the 2020-2021 academic year will be the Smarter Balanced English Language Arts examination. The test ranks students in four different levels of reading achievement — exceeds standards, meets standards, approaching standards or emerging/developing standards. Only those in the lowest level would be identified for possible retention in the third grade.
But, as allowed by law, the board adopted an alternative test for those who fail the Smarter Balanced one. That is the Northwest Evaluation Association reading test and the cut-off score on that test will be a rather law 30th percentile.
But then the board created, as the law allows, a number of other “good-cause” exemptions for those with disabilities, English learners, ones who demonstrate reading proficiency through a portfolio of school work and those who were retained in earlier grades.
“While initial data indicates a significant number of students may be retained in third grade, the good-cause exemptions ensure fairness in this process,” Steve Canavero, superintendent of public instruction, was quoted as saying in the press release. “I can’t emphasize enough, the goal of Read by Grade 3 is not to punish anyone, rather the goal of this program is to enhance a student’s ability to read successfully — thus ensuring success throughout his/her entire academic experience.”
But the law itself does require considerable input from pupils’ parents or legal guardians. Hopefully they will make sound judgments as to whether a good-cause exemption is better than retention. Social promotion often does not work out for the best.
A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.