Bill aims to boost students' reading abilities

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Students still struggling to read by the end of third grade would be held back for extra help under a bill that aims to boost children’s chances of success through early intervention.

The bill backed by leading Republican senators seeks to end years of static achievement in South Carolina’s schools through a coordinated focus on reading in the primary grades. That includes ensuring students aren’t promoted to fourth grade solely to keep them among classmates their own age.

“We’re socially promoting them to high school and then out as a dropout,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.

He hopes to hold a subcommittee hearing on the issue after legislators return from their break April 9.

Educators have praised the intent of Peeler’s bill, based on policies implemented in Florida in 2001 by former Gov. Jeb Bush. More than 30 states have since passed similar laws.

“I see this as a very positive step,” said Jackie Hicks, president of the South Carolina Education Association, a teacher advocacy group.

She and others stress that funding will be a major issue because one-on-one reading coaches and other interventions aren’t cheap. Peeler suggested the state shift some of the $136 million now allocated to help students who test poorly to the lower grades.

The retention piece is causing the most concern. Currently, just 1 percent of third-graders statewide are held back, according to the Education Oversight Committee. However, state-standardized tests show that one in five third-graders can’t read at a basic level.

While multiple studies show that students who read poorly by the end of third grade are on a dropout track, some educators point to other studies showing retained students also often end up dropping out.

Holding students back stigmatizes them as a failure, said Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the state School Boards Association.

And although the bill does list instances when students can be exempted from being held back, Oconee County Superintendent Michael Lucas said he worries about putting retention determinations in state law.

“Retention should never be a punitive thing,” he said. “It’s not their fault.”

The former director of the Charleston Education Network said the problem with advancing students who can’t read is that the system never catches them up. In Charleston County, nearly 14 percent of ninth-graders read below a fifth-grade level. It’s when nothing’s done differently for the child that retention doesn’t work, said Jon Butzon, a longtime education advocate.

“It’s not because retention’s a bad idea. It’s because we don’t do it well,” he said. “If we did it right the first time, we wouldn’t have to do this.”

The proposal calls for holding back third-graders whose scores on the state reading test fall in the bottom of the lowest tier – meaning they can’t comprehend the words on the page. One test wouldn’t be the decider. Students could also demonstrate their abilities through an alternate test or a teacher’s reading portfolio. They also could advance following a required summer reading camp, if their skills improve enough.

State Superintendent Mick Zais supports the retention policy, which wouldn’t kick in for several years, though he wants other parts tossed, such as creating a literacy office in his agency. The retired Army brigadier general has noted he repeated kindergarten.

While the retention piece is getting much of the attention, other parts of the bill are aimed at helping students before they reach that point. The measure requires that students be screened for school readiness as they enter kindergarten to identify problems, from language skills to vision impairment. Intervention would include after-school and summer school programs, as well as reading coaches.

The bill also requires teachers of all grades, as well as administrators in schools through eighth grade, to take between two and five literacy courses. The courses could fulfill continuing-education requirements for re-certification, meaning they won’t necessarily add to teachers’ workload.

Furthermore, the measure requires that parents be informed of their children’s reading status and encourages districts to create partnerships to help increase at-home reading.

Melanie Huggins, director of the Richland County Public Library, said she’s eager to expand on libraries’ role in helping students read. Through a pilot program this summer, her library is providing one-on-one tutoring for 25 needy children.

“Let’s do it!” Butzon said of the bill. “We can’t keep sending kids forward who don’t know how to read. We cannot continue to allow the system to mess up.”


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