The blueprint for educational reform in Iowa has been released by Gov. Terry Branstad's office; he and his staff are traveling around the state, talking to citizens about the recommendations that will go to the Legislature in January.
From my background as a classroom teacher (both general and special education for six years), a school psychologist (30-plus years), a university professor of special education (22 years), and a parent of a child who had a learning disability in reading (who is now a college graduate and a good reader), I support all of the recommendations in the document except "Ensure Third Grade Literacy." I have very real concerns, not with the need to identify and provide quality instruction to struggling readers, but for the retention of children who have legitimate explanations for low/slow growth in reading skills.
n 16 percent of children at the third-grade level, and any grade level for that matter, have intellectual abilities below the average range, meaning that they will learn to read at a much slower rate than age mates.
n 5 percent of school-aged children have a learning disability, usually in the area of reading, which makes their progress in reading-skill acquisition difficult and below that of their age peers.
n 3 to 5 percent of school-aged children have a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a significant number of those children also having co-occurring learning disabilities, usually in the areas of reading and writing.
n 2 to 4 percent of school-aged children either have or should have a diagnosis of Behavior Disordered, with the majority performing in school in the low average to below average range in academic skills.
n Many of our communities in Iowa have children who live in families where English is not the primary language. Although they may make good progress in the acquisition of oral language, it takes five to seven years for an ESL child to become proficient in written English, which is what is assessed on statewide achievement tests.
n Many of our children come to school from family situations of poverty where language development is far below that of children raised in middle and high socio-economic families. For example, a first grader from a high SES family knows about twice as many words as lower SES students. Along with this critical vocabulary knowledge, children learning to read need background experiences that most families living in poverty cannot provide. Therefore, the reading skill acquisition of these children of poverty will be compromised by their limited pre-school entry experiences and their growth in literacy will be at a lower rate than peers from non-poverty backgrounds.
So, conservatively 25 percent of third graders, as well as all school-aged children in Iowa, have legitimate explanations why they may not be performing in the area of reading at the same level as the average of their peers. I know that the Blueprint indicates that there will be "numerous good-cause exemptions" considered in the suggested third-grade literacy test. Such "exemptions" need to be broad per the list above, though any retention is unduly punishing to children. That belief comes from the considerable research on grade retention, indicating the harm of such a practice:
n Over time, children who are retained either do not do better or sometimes do worse than similarly low-achieving groups of children who were not retained. Without specific targeted interventions, most retained students do not catch up.
n Grade retention is associated with negative outcomes in all areas of student achievement and social-emotional adjustment, with a study of sixth graders indicating grade retention as one of the most stressful life events.
n By adolescence, experiencing grade retention is predictive of health-compromising behaviors such as emotional stress, low self-esteem, poor peer relations, cigarette use, alcohol and substance abuse, early onset of sexual activity, suicidal intentions and violent behaviors.
n Students who are retained are much more likely to drop out of school and retained students are much less likely to receive a diploma by age 20.
The governor's blueprint does contain - or implies - approaches that would better provide for the struggling reader than retention in third grade, including:
n "Early developmental programs and preschool programs for children from ELL and low SES families.
n "Training of teachers in research-based instructional programs/practices to positively impact student achievement.
n "Teacher collaboration and data-based decision-making regarding the needs of all learners."
Linda L. Meloy is an educator who lives in Muscatine.