Jane Phillips/The Santa Fe New Mexican
Nearly half of New Mexico’s third graders cannot read to grade level, according to a 2011 state-standardized test.
And if you listened to the rhetoric in the debate over what to do with those students, you might think the choice is simple: hold them back or pass them on to fourth grade without any consequences.
But the debate is more complex. Gov. Susana Martinez and her education secretary, Hanna Skandera, have worked toward compromise with lawmakers for two years. Last year a deal was close. A majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate agreed in principle to focus first on helping struggling students read in earlier grades and then hold back students in third grade only when they failed to meet certain criteria. But the two chambers passed different versions of the proposal, and neither made it to the governor’s desk.
With many new legislators taking office this year, whether compromise is possible in 2013 isn’t clear. But Martinez and Skandera are expected to ask state lawmakers for the third straight year during the legislative session that starts next week to limit social promotion, the practice of promoting a student who isn’t reading to grade level. They cite New Mexico’s low scores on standardized tests and the state’s high school dropout rates, among the worst in the nation, as reasons to change state law.
Opponents say current law is working and doesn’t need to be changed. It allows parents and teachers, who they say are equipped to know a student’s capabilities, to decide whether to hold students back on a case-by-case basis.
“Retention is an option that should remain an option,” said Alyssa Agranat, an Albuquerque Public Schools teacher who has been an outspoken critic of Martinez ‘s proposals. “I think a policy of ‘en masse depending on test score’ is not the way to go. The teacher, the principal, the student-action-team members and others who know the students need to make the decision.”
During last year’s negotiations, Martinez agreed to support House legislation that would strip parents of the right to veto a recommendation to hold their child back. Under current law, New Mexico parents have the right to say no — at least the first time — if a school suggests retention for a child. Had the House bill become law, local school officials could have considered a parents’ petition to promote their struggling child when their child had completed all remediation programs in earlier grades and maintained a 95 percent attendance rate. Martinez also agreed to Senate legislation that focused even more on remediation before allowing the possibility of retention.
But limiting social promotion has eluded Martinez so far. Resistance can be found among lawmakers and educators, including staff members at an elementary school in Southern New Mexico that Martinez has held up as a model of achievement.
Anthony Elementary School in Anthony, N.M. near Las Cruces scored an “A” on the state’s new grading system and ranks fifth in achievement. However, principal Linda Perez and the school’s instructional coach, Lisa Quintis, insist that close student monitoring and remediation, rather than retention, works.
Martinez’s advocacy for changing the law, contrasted with the opposition among staff at Anthony Elementary and other educators around the state, spotlights a central question in the debate over limiting social promotion: whether to lay out in state statute when to retain a student if he or she hasn’t met certain expectations by the end of third grade.
The governor’s take
The governor has long emphasized the importance of teaching kids to read based on her own experiences. Working as a prosecutor she encountered many kids who could not read, dropped out of school, and pursued lives of crime, she has said.
New Mexico’s literacy rate could serve as a backdrop for Martinez’s stump speech on the issue. About 46 percent of adult New Mexicans read below the sixth-grade level, according to Heather Heunermund, executive director for The New Mexico Coalition for Literacy.
Martinez, a Republican, also could point to some Democrats who support retention, including many state lawmakers who sponsored and voted for the legislation last year and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “If your students keep being allowed to leave third grade and fourth grade without being able to read, you’re not doing them any favors,” Duncan said last year.
The public also appears to back Martinez’s campaign to limit social promotion. In the autumn of 2012 an Albuquerque Journal poll of some 400 likely voters revealed that 75 percent favored retaining a child if he/she could not read at grade level. Another 7 percent were undecided, leaving just 18 percent to oppose the deal.
“Why are we letting politics get in the way of success for our kids?” Skandera asked during an interview at the Roundhouse in November.
A little history
Under current law, 287 students were held back across the state in the third grade during the last school year, out of a class of 25,738, according to Larry Behrens, a spokesman with the public education department. The administration estimates that at most an additional 1,500 students would be held back if the proposals pass muster with the Legislature. Under the proposals, holding back students wouldn’t begin until the 2014-15 school year to give proposed remediation time to reduce that number.
The administration has proposed $13.5 million to pay for remediation and intervention for students struggling to read in kindergarten through third grade, said Enrique Knell, the governor’s spokesman. Additional dollars also are being proposed to help students in early grades, Behrens said.
But at Anthony Elementary School, some 60 percent of its 420 students are English-language learners. Nearly all the school’s students qualify for the federal government’s free-and-reduced lunch program — an indication of poverty.
Yet the school is achieving, according to New Mexico’s grading system. And it isn’t relying heavily on a policy of holding back struggling students.
In school year 2006-2007, the school’s average reading score was 44.60 percent based on Standard Based Assessment tests. Five years later it is 62.40 percent. Principal Perez, who has been on the job three years, works with her staff to ensure early intervention procedures are put into place to keep kids on track.
Quintis, that school’s instructional coach, works weekly with teachers to continually assess students reading and math skills, she said. The school also has set up weekly and nine-week assessment blocks to monitor progress.
“Progress monitoring and being held accountable is what makes a huge difference,” Quintis said. “We have block time; about an hour every day so I can meet teachers a couple of times a week. Administrators have to hold teachers accountable for this type of program but everybody has to be given time during the day to have this reflective conversation. It doesn’t take any more money, but it does take time — and an administrator saying, ‘I want you to collect this data every week and have that conversation with the instructional coach.’”
Getting children to think about what they are reading is key too, Quintis said. “They need to analyze what they think the author’s questions are as they wrote the article or novel, what the main theme is, and what is the supporting evidence of that theme within the text? What are the implications? How do you think about the characters differently?”
Other factors, including poverty, speaking English as a second language and dyslexia, shape a child’s potential.
“But in this school there are no excuses,” Quintis said.
Facts, figures and friction
Holding kids back a grade if they are not learning is probably as old as the schoolhouse itself. An August 2012 Brookings Institution report, entitled “Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?” notes that by the 1960s many educators called for students to be advanced to the next grade regardless of academic performance because of concerns that retention hindered the “social, emotional, and cognitive development of at-risk students.”
So many factors revolve around an educator’s decision to hold back a student that it is impossible to incorporate them all into any sort of sound analysis, according to the report.
An April 2012 Manhattan Institute For Policy Research paper examining a decade-old retention/intervention policy in Florida echoes that thought, noting that studies often don’t account for “maturity level or home environment” that can affect a student’s achievement.
Martinez’s proposals have borrowed from the program in Florida, where Skandera served as deputy commissioner of education from 2005 to 2007. New Mexico’s grading system comes from Florida too. That state is the only one that’s had a ban on social promotion in place long enough to study.
The Manhattan Institute report sets out to compare two groups over several years – Florida students who were passed on from the third grade despite displaying only borderline knowledge of what they were reading, and students who were held back though their knowledge was only slightly less than that of students in the other group.
Florida held back about 21,800 students in the first year, about 75 percent more than it had the year before. They received more intense literacy lessons and additional reading lessons every day. The report found that those who were held back and given additional help “did better academically, in both the short and long term” – at least through seventh grade, which was as far as study was possible – than those who were promoted.
Florida’s system, the study’s author wrote, “is an example for policy makers across the country to emulate.”
But to Trina Raper, literacy coordinator for Santa Fe Public Schools, the key word in that study is remediation — the process of identifying struggling students and ensuring they get extra time with teachers and materials to master reading — and not retention.
Raper cites two sources. One is a 2007 National Association of School Psychologists paper. It emphasizes helping a struggling student to read instead of holding him or her back, which the study states is ineffective and possibly harmful, she said.
Critics of retention policies often say holding a child back affects a student’s self-esteem and, because of that, many students fall behind and eventually give up on the system, dropping out before graduating.
The other is John Hattie’s meta-analysis driven 2009 book Visible Learning, Raper said. The book argues that promoted students still score better when it comes to social and emotional adjustment as well as gaining confidence within school. “Being retained one year almost doubled a student’s likelihood of dropping out,” Hattie writes.
“It’s better to take the kid to the next tier and keep them with their peers. Everybody has a story about the student who is retained and ends up fine, but there is a risk of sending the wrong message to students: ‘you can’t do school,’” said Raper, who cautioned that she was speaking for herself, not the school district.
Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York and author of the 2011 report Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, agreed.
“Whether it will work or not remains something of an open question — and how will it work and whether it will last,” he said of social promotion bans. “My fear is putting it all on a child at the third grade will lead to other problems.”
Democrats control both the state New Mexico House and Senate, meaning the governor will need bipartisan support this session to pass a bill limiting social promotion. She also must contend with a batch of new state lawmakers who will serve in both chambers following the November election.
But there are signs that any reading bill that involves retention might face long odds, despite bipartisan support in 2011 and 2012.
Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and a former educator, opposes altering the state’s current policy that gives parents the right to say no — at least the first time — if a school suggests holding back a child.
“It gives you a safeguard and parent buy-in,” she said, explaining the responsibility for a child’s growth should fall on the shoulders of the experts — teachers, parents, principals, intervention specialists, diagnostic experts. They, not the state’s governor, know whether the child would be helped or harmed by retention, she said.
Senator Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, an early supporter, said though compromise was almost struck last year, there are so many new faces in the New Mexico Legislature this year the bill’s chances are unknown.
“There is still a lot of opposition to that particular bill and it is going to be difficult to pass that,” she said. “I can’t say enough about secretary Skandera and her dedication to improving education in New Mexico. But it’s going to be a whole new ball game with a lot of new legislators coming in.”