Panel debates literacy law that would hold struggling 3rd graders back


The Heard Museum hosted a panel of educators and members of the community to discuss the issue of a law holding back third-graders who fall below testing standards. (Carolyn Corcoran/DD)

Educators and community members speaking on a panel at the Heard Museum Thursday agreed that the law requiring third-graders to be held back if they fall below AIMS reading testing standards needs to be changed.

The discussion, hosted by ideas exchange Zocalo Public Square and the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, was moderated by Arizona Republic education reporter Cathryn Creno. The panel members included ASU literacy education professor Frank Serafini, city of Phoenix youth and education manager Tim Valencia and Griffith Elementary School instructional coach Daniela Robles.

Arizona implemented a 2010 state law this school year. According to the Education Commission of the States, “provisions for early identification of difficulties … should form the basis of effective state policy.” The ECS noted that 22 different states and the District of Columbia have been identified as having policies centered around this idea, including Arizona.

The speakers discussed the issues relating to the new law requiring third-graders to be held back if their reading scores fall drastically below the score necessary to pass. According to Creno, the state estimates that 1,500 Arizona third-graders who are not in special education programs and not English language learners are being held back this year because of the new law.

“We have lots of issues in learning to read,” Serafini said. “One of the biggest issues is how we define being able to read. We’re defining it primarily by a test in this case. What (students) can do with reading would require more assessments and understanding.”

Creno said that a year ago, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer made sure that $40 million, or about $130 per student, was allocated to each school district in the state specifically for reading programs up to a third-grade level.

“Let’s think about when the appropriations actually came to be,” Robles said. “Those students were in second grade. When we’re thinking of literacy, it starts far before second grade. We have a goal that all third-graders will be reading at grade level. How have we task-analyzed?”

The panel agreed that reading habits are developed early in a child’s life. Creno posed the question as to whether or not it is crucial for kids to love to read when they are young, leading to a passion.

“It all speaks to language experiences,” Robles said. “That’s what really opens up a child’s curiosity and motivation. I think it starts early that we encourage that natural love of wanting to find out what might be between those two covers.”

The panel offered a variety of possible solutions to refueling a passion for knowledge in young children. The general consensus was that holding students back will not necessarily be beneficial.

“I would say overall research shows that holding children back doesn’t have a great track record,” Serafini said. “I think that the intentions are noble … but when we do hold children back, the chance of them dropping out sooner and the chance of them not being successful are really hard to refute.”

According to Valencia, who is an early childhood expert, society does not stress the importance of the children’s early years enough. He also said the problem with reading does not rest solely with schools, but communities as well. Communities need to bring the necessary resources in to make them thriving learning environments.

“How do we involve our businesses, our community, to help these inner-city youth begin their home library?” Valencia asked. “I think it’s role modeling, access and opportunity. There’s communities in Phoenix that don’t have a library close by. If a school doesn’t open their library on a Saturday, then that’s a huge missed opportunity.”

The panel was also in agreement that a personalized approach to the development of children’s reading skills is more beneficial to their education. Serafini said teachers have narrowed their curriculum to the point where they are just trying to adhere to standardized testing requirements. He said this could cause teachers to lose the ability to relate to students in an interesting way that truly makes them want to learn.

“Any time we’re looking at one measure to define whether a student is proficient or not proficient, that’s an issue,” Robles said. “We really need to think about what we are prioritizing around funding, around effort, and around community.”

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