Should Kentucky’s struggling third graders be held back? Some educators urge caution.

House Bill 272 would require students who are not performing well in reading and math in third grade to not be promoted to fourth grade without ‘remedying the deficiency or completing intensive remediation.’
House Bill 272 would require students who are not performing well in reading and math in third grade to not be promoted to fourth grade without ‘remedying the deficiency or completing intensive remediation.’ Herald-Leader

A bill that would require students to spend an additional year in third grade if they are behind in reading and math is a priority for top Kentucky education officials, but is facing skepticism.

A parent, a teacher, and the head of a leading Kentucky academic achievement group who reviewed the bill all urged caution on any legislation that requires holding students back.

House Bill 272, was introduced by state Rep. James Tipton, R- Taylorsville. The bill says a student who hasn’t reached certain levels in reading and math “shall not be promoted to grade four without remedying the deficiency or completing intensive remediation.” It would go into effect in the 2020-2021 school year.

The legislation says that a third-grader can’t be promoted unless the student scores on statewide tests at the “apprentice” level or higher in reading and math or completes an intensive program that can include summer enrichment.

In the 2017-18 statewide Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress or K-PREP results, of the 51,257 students tested in the third grade, 24 percent had not reached the apprentice level in reading and 18. 7 percent had not reached the apprentice level in math. They were labeled as novice.

“If children are not reading at grade level by the time they finish the third grade, they are going to have difficulties and poorer outcomes all throughout their school life,” Tipton said. “We are trying to take a scientific, researched-based approach to this. The key to it is to identify those children who have difficulties and make those diagnostic assessments and then a plan could be put in place to start researched-based intervention.

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State Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville Legislative Research Commission

“We are trying to do the intense intervention before we ever get to the point where retention might be required.”

In December, the Kentucky Board of Education set a third grade retention policy as one of its legislative priorities. The state Department of Education and the state Board of Education supports legislation which requires the diagnosis and intervention for reading and mathematics deficiencies for students in grades kindergarten through third grade, said department spokeswoman Jessica Fletcher.

Brooke Powers, who was teaching in Lexington last year when she won the national $25,000 Milken Award, isn’t so sure.

“Although in some circumstances it is in the best interest for students to be retained in order to have another year to master grade level skills and materials, it should only come after they have had the opportunity to receive excellent instruction the first time.

“Mandates, screeners, and retainment do not fix school funding issues, lack of high quality curriculum, or a need for teacher professional development,” Powers said.

She is not alone in her concern.

Prichard Committee Executive Director Brigitte Blom Ramsey outlines the report’s findings during Monday’s annual meeting of the statewide education advocacy organization. Provided

Brigitte Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said her group was still reviewing the bill, but “we urge caution on any requirements to retain students. Research does not demonstrate long-term benefits when we hold students back.”

Efforts to help under performing students would be better focused on giving students support so they could develop their skills along side their peers, she said.

Penny Christian, the president-elect for the 16th District PTA that includes Fayette County, asked what parameters will be used in selecting remedial programs and who will determine if the remediation is sufficient.

“Rather than penalize students for the inherent deficiencies in math and reading at the third-grade level, why not combat those issues by fully funding early childhood education, which is where the deficiencies are identified?” she said.

In 2017, Hal Heiner who was then Kentucky Education & Workforce Development Secretary and is now the chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education, raised the retention question saying that more than 10 states had adopted comprehensive reading policies that include providing intensive reading intervention for students in kindergarten through third grade; retaining students in third grade who do not meet minimum scores on a reading assessment, and providing even more intense reading intervention for students who are retained.

Such policies were in place in states including Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina and Florida, Heiner said, adding that results have been positive.

A brief from the National Conference of State Legislatures on third grade reading retention policies, said that unintended consequences of retention can include increased costs for school districts and negative impacts on long-term achievement.

Retention by itself is not effective in the long-term, Tipton said. The key to it is coupling retention with intense intervention.

Another bill related to statewide public school tests was introduced this week in Kentucky’s General Assembly.

Under House Bill 331, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Nemes, R- Louisville, and House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, parents could decide that their children not take statewide assessments and no punitive measures would result.

Staff writer Valarie Honeycutt Spears covers K-12 education, social issues and other topics. She is a Lexington native with southeastern Kentucky roots.