NC must rethink Read to Achieve because retention leads to more dropouts

Raleigh News & Observer, June 2, 2014

By Bruce Taylor

Summer is in sight for most North Carolina students, and while the majority can look forward to advancing to the next grade in the fall, thousands of students face the prospect of repeating third grade.

Read to Achieve, part of the Excellent Public Schools Act that state lawmakers passed in 2012, seeks to end social promotion after third grade for many students in North Carolina public schools. The law is modeled on legislation passed in Florida in 2001 that some credit with raising reading scores on state and national standardized tests.

Read to Achieve seeks to address complex and serious issues. Research shows that students who are not reading on grade level by fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. However, other research suggests that retaining students is not a guarantee they will catch up. Numerous studies, including a report published in 2002 by the N.C. Center for Public Service at UNC Chapel Hill, suggest that retention can be harmful.

Three themes emerge from a review of research:

• Retention in early grades is harmful (especially before second grade).

• Retention does not help most students make substantial progress in reading or other measures of academic success.

• Retention is associated with high school dropouts.

Estimates vary, but the number of students retained at least once in their school career ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent. African-American students are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade as white students, and boys twice as likely as girls (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).

Several studies find that retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout. A study by Jimerson, Anderson and Whipple (2002) suggests that retained students are 2 to 11 times more likely to drop out of high school than promoted students.

North Carolina’s Read to Achieve is similar to Florida’s efforts in that it applies the “stick” of retention after third grade to struggling students. However, it offers few of the “carrots” Florida provides in its budget, which includes $130 million per year to fund summer reading programs, the hiring of literacy facilitators and other support.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Florida have risen over the past few years, but studies of Florida’s NAEP scores do not tell us whether it is the retention of students that is helping or the extra funding for literacy support. What we do know is that retention without intensive support for students places them at greater risk for social, emotional and educational harm.

Read to Achieve focuses on students who have already completed four years of school despite a large body of research that shows that support early in life has the greatest potential to help students get and stay on track in school.

In its 2011 report, “Unlocking the Potential of a Community: The Plan for School Readiness,” the Larry King Center of the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte identified key components to school readiness, including health care that begins with prenatal care, good nutrition, effective and affordable early childhood education programs (preschool) and schools with resources to meet the needs of children.

However, over the past year money for pre-K education as well as nutrition and health care for low-income children and families in North Carolina has been cut.

If the North Carolina legislature believes that students need more time in the classroom, state money would be better spent on extending the school year or making high-quality summer programs available to more children. If it wants to improve literacy and reading for all students, then let’s provide money for the kinds of intensive resources that support students who struggle with reading: well-qualified literacy facilitators, resource teachers and instructional assistants.

If the goal is to help all children graduate from high school, then let’s not implement policies that have the potential to retain thousands of students and place them at greater risk of dropping out. Retention decisions should be made on an individual basis weighing many factors, not just test scores.

It’s time to rethink Read to Achieve and pay for programs that help all children in North Carolina arrive at school ready to learn while also providing the additional help many students need without imposing penalties that make success in school more challenging.

Bruce Taylor, Ph.D., of Concord is an associate professor in the Department of Reading and Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.