Bill would have low-scoring students repeat third grade

To flunk or not to flunk is a decision that could soon be decided by a test score rather than a conversation between a parent and teacher.

A number of lawmakers think the best path forward for thousands of third-graders who struggle with reading is to keep them back a year.

They want public schools to stop promoting students who score the lowest on a statewide reading exam. And they are pushing a bill to make them retake third grade while also guaranteeing they’ll receive extra attention in the second go-round.

Sponsors of Senate Bill 5237, including Democratic Sens. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Paull Shin of Edmonds, say this bit of tough love will better prepare them for the academic challenges ahead.

They hope, in the long run, it’s a policy that will help shrink the gap in achievement between highest- and lowest-performing students and reduce the number of high school dropouts.

“It’s time to say enough is enough,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, the author of the bill, which had its first hearing in the Senate education committee Wednesday. “We are going to force the system to do what’s necessary to make a kid successful.”

But an academic expert on student retention said there are piles of studies showing such a policy could wind up doing more harm than good.

“The empirical evidence reveals that indeed grade retention is the single most powerful predictor of high school dropout,” Shane Jimerson, a professor in the Gevirtz School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in an email this week.

“It is important to note that 30 years ago educational researchers declared grade retention to be ‘an unjustifiable, discriminatory, and noxious’ intervention,” said Jimerson, author of eight studies on retention and social promotion since 1999.

Personal experience, not research, is why state public schools chief Randy Dorn, is opposed. In his days as a teacher and principal, he made heart-wrenching decisions to flunk students.

“I’ve sat with parents who were in tears that their child will be held back. And it can be detrimental to the child,” he said. “To draw a line and say this kid doesn’t make it because of one test? Something about that does not seem right.”

Third-graders’ reading skills are gauged by their performance on the statewide Measurements of Student Progress test, successor to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning or WASL.

Students are grouped in one of four levels — Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. Those in the Below Basic level could be flunked starting in the 2014-15 school year, under the bill.

There were 6,430 students in this category in 2011, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Dammeier, a former school board member, insisted far fewer than that will be retained as the bill exempts students with learning disabilities and most English language learners.

Retention is not cheap as the state must pay for another year of schooling for those students.

Washington now spends about $10,000 per student in public schools. If 2,000 are held back – that’s Dammeier’s guesstimate – it will cost $20 million to send them through third grade again. Tutors, summer school classes and other assistance promised in the bill will add to the tab.

Money will be dealt with separately in the budget, he said. For now, the focus of this bill is on changing the mind-set in public schools.

“If you advance a kid who is not ready it could lead to their failure,” he said. “That is the worst thing we can do for them.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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