Nearly 28 percent of Kansas students who are third-graders cannot read “at a basic level” by the time that year is completed, according to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
When they move up to the fourth grade, they are in deep trouble. Up through the third grade, students are being taught to read for reading’s sake. In fourth grade, however, they must read in order to learn other subjects, like math and science, and to problem-solve.
As one might expect, the illiterate children who are passed from the third to the fourth grade have a much higher dropout rate once they get into high school.
According to experts, reading proficiently by the end of the third grade can be a make-it-or-break-it benchmark in a child’s educational development.
Brownback wants to stop this slide in its tracks.
He has pushed for a bill, S.B.169, which says that if a child cannot read by the end of the third grade, that student must be held back (retained, to be more politically correct).
So would end what is called “social promotion” at that grade level.
This would take effect in the 2016-17 school year. Brownback’s budget includes $6 million to help third-grade students learn reading.
There should be little controversy over this proposal, because this is a sound idea. Whatever social pitfalls a retained student might face by being held back, they cannot measure up to the damage of sending a child into the fourth grade who cannot read.
Yet, there is controversy. There always is.
Some educators think the retention is unfair, because many children come into their districts who barely speak English or whose parents have little education and pass on a limited vocabulary.
You would think the governor wants to punish the students. On the contrary. He wants to save them.
The real question is, will it work?
There are 14 states that have implemented similar programs. It is too soon to tell much about their success, except in the case of Florida, which started its third-grade retention program in 2002.
The literacy rates have improved markedly in Florida, and that should be the primary goal.
Florida spent about $130 million this year on literacy programs. They have summer reading camps. The students who cannot read are assigned to “high-performing” teachers.
Kansas has a lot to learn from Florida, and so do the other states that are jumping into this new policy.
But one thing is for certain: To allow a third-grader into fourth grade who cannot read is a travesty.
Brownback’s plan may not have enough funding, and it does not yet have many of the elaborate, comprehensive efforts that Florida is providing.
But it is a good start.
Unfortunately, the bill is stuck in the Senate Education Committee, failing on a 5-6 vote. Hopefully, the governor can cajole enough committee members to move it to the floor of the full Senate, where it likely would pass. A similar bill has already passed the House.
This is a bill I hope the governor will have the opportunity to sign.
| Special to The Star