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3rd Grade Reading and Social Promotion

Posted by Jim Stergios  September 4, 2011 02:57 PM

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(image from WBUR site)

Through 2007, Massachusetts showed the fastest progress of any state on the national assessment (NAEP) tests. What was most impressive is that black and Hispanic students showed even more progress on the national assessments than did their white peers.

That march has stopped. We are pretty much flatlined. Instead, other states like Florida have been moving up the rankings pretty fast. Though Florida still performs at a level well below Massachusetts in overall NAEP rankings, it provides a good counterpoint to Massachusetts, particularly as regards academic progress among Hispanic students.

The Sunshine State is poorer than Massachusetts; it has a far larger immigrant population; and it has few of the cultural drivers that make education more of a priority in the Commonwealth. That's why Florida’s march in education is so impressive among Hispanic students. The last NAEP tests showed Florida's Hispanic students actually outperform all students in 31 states. That’s great news.

It is true that Florida’s Hispanic student population already in the early 1990s outperformed Massachusetts students on the NAEP (in part because of a large Cuban population that culturally made education a priority). But still, Florida's Hispanic students have progressed faster on the NAEP than have Massachusetts'. And that progress comes even as Florida has seen a much larger influx of Hispanic immigrants than has Massachusetts in recent years.

It is important to understand how they are achieving their results--and why, unlike Massachusetts, Florida's speed of improvement on national assessments has not flatlined. .

Perhaps a useful place to start is to look at a snapshot of each state's reforms in 2005, the year in which Massachusetts' pace of improvement on the NAEP was significant.

  • In 2005, Massachusetts had higher standards, higher-quality student tests (aligned to the standards), and a better charter approval and closure process, and importantly we had a far higher quality teacher test (again aligned to the standards). Our funding was fairer to districts though Florida made huge strides in that regard over the previous decade.
  • In 2005, Florida had a statewide virtual school that was the envy of other states, more school choice programs (which were still too small to affect its assessment scores significantly). Probably most significant for the increase in its students’ performance was, however, the decision to stop social promotion for grade 4. That is, if students were not able to attain third grade reading proficiency, they would not be allowed to go on to grade four.

You can pull a number of points from these lists; I'll stick to two.
(1) That was 2005 and today is 2011. The list of areas where Massachusetts had a policy advantage over Florida is shriveling up fast. For all intents and purposes, gone since 2007 is our accountability office. Gone is the state department of education's emphasis on getting more districts aligned with high-quality standards. (And now gone are our higher standards, with in 2014 our advantage on testing gone, too. Going forward, we will have the same standards and tests as Florida.) The recent messes made by the state DESE on charters (Gloucester, Lynn, Brockton) suggest that our approval process is, to put it politely, in flux; to put it bluntly, no one understands it anymore.

Unlike Massachusetts, Florida has stuck with its reforms and added more choice elements; as well as expanded its virtual school offerings.

(2) While Massachusetts had many advantages over Florida, the Sunshine State had undertaken one reform that we never had the courage to do: Florida signaled that it would not allow social promotion for third graders who have yet to attain third grade reading comprehension levels.

Social promotion debates seem easy on the surface, but are pretty hard in reality. Do you hold back students in all grades if they are far behind in a core subject? What about two? What is the price of holding them back? The fact is that Florida has devised a way to make testing much more meaningful. A standardized graduation requirement is, I believe, necessary for a number of reasons. But it sometimes feels like an autopsy.

All researchers will tell you that attainment of a third grade reading comprehension level is a critical milestone in a child's intellectual and academic life. Without it, the research shows that children are destined for a difficult road ahead in school and in life.

Globe columnist Joanne Weiss wrote well about that issue last week. Weiss cites early education activist Margaret Blood as saying that “If we could get it right in the early years of life, everything else on the education agenda becomes easier.’’ Absolutely true.

The fact is that Blood is trying to reinvigorate a debate that has lacked urgency and intellectual heft since John Silber left the K-12 stage in the late 1990s. Silber was forceful in suggesting that the state ought to think seriously about including an additional early grade of education and getting rid of grade 12 if that is what would be necessary to make the budget numbers work.

Where I think Weiss gets it wrong is in seeing a tension between standards/standardized testing and a focus on building language skills. In a lecture given to an education policy class taught at Northeastern University by former Massachusetts Senate President Thomas Birmingham, renowned curricular expert E.D. Hirsch, Jr., noted that, yes, education policy makers should increasingly focus pre-K-3 instruction on imparting language and crucial background knowledge. But he suggested building further on the Commonwealth's landmark 1993 education reform law, which enacted high-quality state curriculum frameworks and rigorous student and teacher assessments.

Professor Hirsch expressed concern about the recent dominance of what he termed “anticurriculum ideology,” a departure from verbal and fact-based instruction in favor of a "how-to" approach that replaces rigorous academics with hands-on activities. He called for a return to a defined, knowledge-based, grade-by-grade curriculum as the most reliable way to close achievement gaps and ensure educational opportunity for all schoolchildren. Hirsch emphasized verbal proficiency and the importance of building a solid foundation in language and reading in grades pre-K-3.

As Hirsch noted,

I think it would also be important for a policy maker to know just why the knowledge and vocabulary that is gained in these early years tend to be decisive for the rest of a person’s life. …[Unless] we make sure, starting in preschool and kindergarten and first grade that all the students in a classroom have the prerequisite knowledge and language to understand what is being said, we will arrive at the situation that now prevails in America – that initial disadvantage will tend to mean permanent disadvantage.

Perhaps, Massachusetts can start that process by making a statement as clear as Florida, which requires high schoolers to pass the 10th grade reading and mathematics FCAT, and Section 1008.25 of the Florida Statutes also requires that 3rd graders pass the 3rd grade reading FCAT.

Three years after the enactment of Section 1008.25 of the Florida Statutes, Florida students started making tremendous progress on a variety of tests, not just the FCAT. And their progress has continued.

Ours has not. We should not fear advancing what works.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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