South Carolina is a dysfunctional poster child for the hot mess that is political leadership, the media, and their combined influence on educational policy.
Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), and even the SC League of Women Voters all cannot stop themselves from promoting the worst possible education reform policy they can find—charter schools, teacher evaluations linked to test scores, merit pay, Teach for America, and grade retention for third graders based on state test scores.
With “Focus on retaining knowledge, not kids,” Cindy Scoppe, Associate Editor at The State (Columbia, SC), opens the door to confronting Zais’s misguided push to retain third graders based on test scores. The headline is promising, but the editorial calls for a delay, when it should be pushing for rejecting the policy completely.
Early in the editorial, Scoppe hits a key point: “But here’s the thing: Simply making kids repeat a grade does no more good than letting them move on to the next grade when they aren’t ready.” We must note that a good deal of evidence shows that retention has tremendous negative consequences, such as a high correlation with dropping out of school, as Scoppe highlights:
Students who have to repeat a grade almost never graduate from high school. A few years back, the Education Oversight Committee did a study that found that the state was spending $20 million a year to send kids through the same grade a second time and getting little if anything for it: While students’ PACT results improved the year they repeated, their scores dropped in each successive year, and after five years they were failing again.
Scoppe’s next point stumbles:
So either they have to repeat another grade — which leaves them in a classroom with kids two years younger, creating its own host of social problems for the failing students and everyone else — or they’re pushed along through the system with little chance of getting the intensive help they need to catch up. Either route sets them up for failure when they get to high school and can’t be so easily moved through the grades.
If these were the only two options, retention remains the worse option, but these are not the only two options.
In fact, we should not ignore that the best option is to implement reading policy that we know works. In other words, let’s teach reading and stop focusing on testing and retention. And along with that, let’s quit this crisis and emergency discourse and policy. Literacy development is a life-long quest, and third grade, regardless of how frantic politicians and the media are, is not a do-or-die grade level for reading.
And thus to this point by Scoppe, we must disagree:
That doesn’t mean we should reject Dr. Zais’ proposal. There has to be a point at which we say that kids are simply too far behind for us to pretend they can catch up without serious intervention. And third grade is a reasonable point.
Third grade in fact is not a reasonable point.
No grade is a reasonable point to retain students based on test scores, specifically in SC. Why? SC students who are likely to be disproportionately retained based on test scores will be high-poverty, minority, special needs, and ELL students because high-stakes standardized tests remain primarily a reflection of out-of-school factors and not student learning, teacher effectiveness, or school quality.
These populations of students already suffer disproportionately as drop outs; retention policy increases those costly outcomes.
However, the last points by Scoppe return to some really solid arguments, calling for providing students who continue to struggle with reading the type of education and the quality of teachers and experiences in school they deserve—such as pre-K, year-round support, and many other aspects of high-quality reading instruction we actually know but are often stopped from providing because of meddling politicians and bad policy.
Like the headline, Scoppe’s closing comment is a shining moment we must embrace: “Because the goal isn’t to hold kids back. It’s to teach them well enough that they don’t need to be held back.”
Thus, let’s not delay Zais’s retention plan, but reject it, and choose instead high-quality reading policy that all children deserve.