Holding Students Back Who Can’t Read “Unfair and Punitive”

Nov 10, 2015

Holding kids back if they don’t read at grade level by the end of third grade was on the agenda at the statehouse Tuesday. 

Education officials are writing the rules for a 2012 law that gives parents of struggling students a choice:  send them to summer school, or they won’t be promoted to fourth grade.  

Speaking before the Iowa Administrative Rules Review Committee, Department of Education spokesman Phil Wise recalls the education reform bill the legislature passed in 2012.

“As you well know then as today the most controversial aspect of that is the so-called third grade retention,” Wise says.

Some Republican lawmakers wanted students to repeat third grade if they’re not reading at grade level.   In a compromise with Democrats, the law gives families some breathing room.   Now the Department of Education must decide how rigorous a summer program will have to be before students are allowed to go on to fourth grade.

“Clearly our intent and the intent of all our rules is proficiency,” says Department of Education Deputy Director David Tilley.  “We want all of our kids to get there.”  

The proposed rules for summer school would require 90% attendance at 75 hours of intensive reading instruction with no more than 15 in a class.     If the kids comply they’d be promoted whether or not their scores go up.  If they don’t comply it’s back to third grade.  Some skeptics say the standards are too strict, others not strict enough.   And some object to mandatory retention in principle.  

“Because of the sociological effects of retention we would prefer that summer school be the opportunity as opposed to retention,” says Margaret Buckton with the Urban Education Network and the Rural Schools Association of Iowa.

Buckton says complying with the rules will be difficult and expensive.   She favors setting goals for students to achieve instead.      

Parents of children with learning challenges are also speaking out.   Katie Greving is with the Iowa chapter of Decoding Dyslexia.

“The rules you’re considering here today are going to affect thousands of dyslexic children across the state,” Greving says.    

Greving calls the proposed rules unfair and punitive. 

Representative Rick Olson, a Democrat from Des Moines, serves on the Rules Review Committee.  He’s a lawyer in his day job.  He says holding kids back who don’t follow the rules for summer school is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

“This will be a hot topic for somebody that wants their child to move on,” Olson says.  “He’s being held back.  He or she isn’t proficient.  But the problem is the 90% attendance rate.”

Third-graders will be subject to the new law starting at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. 

Officials estimate the numbers won’t be small if past year’s scores are any indication.    

David Tilley at the Department of Education says last year’s third-graders didn’t score so well.

“We look at their Iowa Test of Basic Schools results and have estimated that about 25 per-cent of third-graders graders at the end of the school year were not proficient on Iowa tests,” Tilley says.

That means more than 9000 students could end up in summer school at a cost to local school districts of as much as ten-million dollars.

Phil Wise at the Department of Education says reaction from the public has been so strident, they’re going to slow down the timeline for approving the rules.

“In my years around this place I have not seen as many comments,” Wise says. 

Wise says it’s back to the drawing board.   But he warns the law is the law, and one way or the other, parents of third-graders may face a tough choice in the spring of 2017.