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School responses to third-grade retention law may spur literacy gains


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

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Arizona school districts are getting better at identifying and assisting students in kindergarten through third grade who are struggling with reading, and the state’s top literacy expert credits the improvement to more intensive interventions at earlier ages and the strengthening of core reading programs which have come in response to the 2010 passage of Arizona’s Move On When Reading law ARS § 15-701.

The law requires that third-grade students who score Falls Far Below in reading on AIMS or a successor test will not be promoted to fourth grade beginning in 2013-2014. Preliminary data from the Arizona Department of Education shows that just three percent of Arizona’s 84,000 third-grade students who took the AIMS reading assessment this spring scored Falls Far Below, and the department estimates that less than 1 percent will actually be retained. Retained students may be retested mid-year and promoted to fourth grade if they pass.

School responses to third-grade retention law may spur literacy gains MOWRMainHP“It’s not always easy to understand why someone is struggling with reading,” said Terri Clark, Arizona Literacy Director. “Once we narrow down the factors, find what it is and they get the support, I have seen students make six to eight months progress in just a few months.”

Arizona public schools are using literacy plans, support specialists, student data, quality curriculum and teachers professional development to help their students meet Move On When Reading requirements, Clark said

She also said she has seen more coordination and consistency in the literacy plans districts and charter schools with kindergarten through third grade students submit to the State Board of Education as required by law ARS § 15-211.

“The schools really outline a comprehensive approach that has all the pillars that have to happen for us to be successful,” Clark said. “We’re getting better at identifying earlier when kids are a little behind and then getting them those resources.”

Arizona’s education funding formula includes a K-3 Reading Support Level Weight that includes roughly $130 for every student enrolled in Kindergarten through third grade, but in order to receive that funding the State Board of Education must approve districts and charter schools literacy plans, said Christine M. Thompson, executive director of the State Board of Education.

The Parker Unified School District has used its K-3 reading resources to fund its Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project.

“Besides phonics and reading materials, our literacy plan has an intense intervention program at first grade for at-risk students,” said Sandra Cooke, curriculum and federal projects director for Parker USD.

During third grade, at-risk students are pulled from the classroom for 30-minutes of intervention with a reading specialist, Cooke said.

“Where there’s a comprehensive reading approach tailored to the needs of the students, it’s helping them make progress toward improving their reading scores,” Clark said. “Some of it is in areas very specific to early literacy around fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, but some of it is outside. There’s a bigger picture of what’s going on with that child and what the family needs.”

School responses to third-grade retention law may spur literacy gains MoveOnWhenReadingThe American Academy of Pediatrics boosted the literacy effort this week by encouraging all parents to read aloud each day to their child from birth to stimulate early language development and develop social-emotional skills.

Why is reading at grade level in third grade so important? That’s when “students shift from learning to read and begin reading to learn,” wrote Donald J. Hernandez, City University of New York professor of sociology in Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation.

“Some people can pick reading up easier than others, but there are some very legitimate issues and challenges to why someone has difficulty reading,” Clark said. “It is not for lack of effort and not for lack of wanting to learn to read.”

Students who cannot read proficiently are unlikely to earn a college degree or complete the further training after high school necessary for high-earning careers that make America competitive in the global marketplace, according to Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third-Grade Matters, a 2010 Annie E. Casey Foundation report.

“Our plan focused on providing Tier II interventions and strengthening our core reading programs,” said Jeanna Dowse, director of instructional services for Ganado Unified School District in Apache County. “We met our goal and had only one student who scored in the Falls Far Below category in third grade reading.”

“We need to strengthen our reading intervention program,” Dowse said. “We have the data to identify the students that are at risk, but we need to provide a comprehensive reading intervention program that will target individual student needs.”

Mesa Public Schools leveraged technology by giving students iPads on which they received “consistent practice in the areas they needed support,” monitoring their reading progress throughout the year with Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), and “by the end of the school year, they showed a 7 percent increase in the reading scores of their students,” Clark said.

Scottsdale Unified School District hired more teachers and reading specialists, monitored students’ progress throughout the year to determine what worked and, like Dysart Unified, Buckeye Elementary and many other school districts, offered students a summer reading program to prevent the summer slump in learning, Clark said.

After the first reading assessment, Scottsdale Unified teachers met with families of students who didn’t do as well, explained the potential of being retained and then planned with the families what kinds of extra services and supports those students would get through the year, Clark said.

Litchfield Elementary School District combined their comprehensive reading instruction, core reading block, use of digital books – including an eBook Extravaganza to keep students reading over the summer – and a reading/tutoring volunteer program started at Dreaming Summit Elementary School.

“A teacher identified what the students needed as far as help, the teacher developed a package of what the volunteers would work with the student, and the volunteers then were trained to come in and work one-on-one with these students at least twice a week,” Clark said. “That additional, consistent one-on-one work was very effective.”

Schools also looked at how other factors like health, hunger, attendance, the long summer break, and frequent moves within state impact a child’s learning, Clark said.

“If they can move from one place to another and quickly be identified where they’re at what supports they need, and those supports are offered, then they continue on the path,” Clark said. “That’s what we really want to see in an early literacy system.”

Only students who are English Language Learners with less than two years of English instruction and disabled children whose team agrees promotion is appropriate based on their Individualized Education Program are exempt from the Move on When Reading law, said Jennifer Liewer, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.

“What our general ed students need, what our English Language Learner students need, and what our special needs students need, we need to get good at understanding that and meeting them where they’re at,” Clark said. “That’s what we’re starting to see happen.”

Ganado Unified piloted Fast ForWord as its intervention program for English Language Learner students, and none of their ELL students scored Falls Far Below, Dowse said.

“It isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to reading,’ Clark said. “There are many different challenges and places that you can really improve reading if you get good at identifying what that need is.

Schools are also learning how to effectively use volunteers to give students who score Approaching in reading on AIMS that extra practice and one-on-one support they need to succeed in areas they are struggling, Clark said.

Preliminary data shows about 2,200 students, or less than 3 percent, of the 84,000 Arizona public school third graders who took the AIMS reading assessment this spring scored Falls Far Below, Liewer said. In early August, the Arizona Department of Education will release all AIMS results.

“As many as 70% of these students may be eligible for promotion based on one of the two legal exemptions,” Liewer said.

That leaves 660 students facing retention in third grade, but fewer are expected to be held back because they are enrolled in summer remedial reading programs and might pass a reading test similar to AIMS at the end.

“The State Board is pleased that the number of students that score Falls Far Below on third-grade AIMS reading continues to decline, and hopes that increased emphasis and support will help schools ensure all students are reading at grade level by the third grade,” Thompson said.

State law requires districts/charters to provide students who have been retained one of these options: A four- to six-week intensive reading instruction summer school program, four- to six-week intensive reading online instruction program, provide the student with a new reading teacher the following year, intensive reading intervention before, during or after-school in the following year along with their regular intensive reading instruction.

“What families can do is really advocate for their child, decide what’s the best option, and work with the teacher and principal to understand what opportunities would be best for their child and how their child learns,” Clark said.

In 2013-14, 390 literacy plans were submitted with 233 of them from A or B schools and 157 from schools with C, D, F, or no letter grade or Falls Far Below, Thompson said. Fifty two local education agencies did not submit plans – 12 due to low or nonexistent enrollment in grades K-3, 23 (15 charter and 8 district) were A or B LEAs, and 17 (8 charter and 9 district) were either C, D, F, without a letter grade or Falls Far Below.

Districts with strong, comprehensive early childhood programs that invest in teachers’ professional development find their students “are on-track early and stay on track,” Clark said.

“We can’t just keep focusing on what do we do in third grade,” Clark said. “It’s what do we do as soon as they’re entering our system and how do we make sure they have what they need.”

WestEd, through a partnership grant from the Helios Education Foundation, is studying Move On When Reading in Arizona by collecting data from schools and districts statewide on how they’re implementing interventions for struggling readers, said Dr. Lenay Dunn, senior research associate with WestEd.

“WestEd just began the first phase of this study by observing summer school classes and meeting with summer school teachers and site administrators to discuss Move On When Reading implementation at a few sites across the state,” Dunn said.