As the new school year begins, and Virginia educators ponder how to raise disappointing Standards of Learning reading scores from the last academic year—which either declined or remained the same in every local school division in the commonwealth—they might want to at least consider an intervention that has gained ground in 19 other states: mandatory retention for certain elementary students who cannot read at a proficient level by third grade.

More than 1 in 4 students in Virginia are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Third-grade reading SOL scores actually decreased last year for the third year in a row, with only 71 percent earning a passing grade—down from 76 percent in the 2015-16 academic year.

The situation is even worse for minority students: only 57 percent of black students and 55 percent of Hispanic students in Virginia got passing grades on the third-grade SOL reading test.

Basic reading skills form the foundation of academic success, so this backwards slide in reading scores will have serious repercussions for these children throughout their remaining school years. Kids who can’t read by third grade start falling further and further behind their peers in all other subject areas.

A 2011 study released by the American Educational Research Association found that students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are four times more likely than their peers to leave high school without a diploma by age 19. In fact, low reading ability was found to be an even stronger predictor of dropping out of high school than spending at least a year in poverty, according to professor Donald Hernandez, the study’s author. “Third grade is a kind of pivot point,” he explained.

A 2002 law in Florida promoted by former Gov. Jeb Bush to end “social promotion” requires students to repeat third grade if they score at the lowest level on the state’s standardized reading tests. Many other states have also followed Florida’s lead. This May, the Alabama legislature passed retention legislation over the objections of the state’s education associations.

One of the main arguments against retention is that being forced to repeat a grade can have devastating emotional and social effects, damaging students’ self-esteem. But so can being promoted to fourth grade and being unable to keep up with one’s classmates—and falling further behind each passing year. Early intervention in the form of a mandatory retention year is an attempt to prevent that domino-like effect—with its lifelong negative consequences—from happening.

However, an extra year of third grade should not just be a rerun of the same curriculum and teaching methods that failed these students in the first place, but one that emphasizes back-to-the-basics phonetic and comprehension skills using the latest pedagogical approaches. It’s the job of professional educators to find the right approach for each student, especially those with dyslexia or other learning disabilities that require individually tailored reading instruction.

And instead of viewing mandatory retention in a negative light, parents should understand that giving a struggling student an extra year in early elementary school is a gift of time to master a foundational skill their children must acquire in order to be successful in school and beyond. Except for special education students with severe cognitive disabilities, all children enrolled in Virginia’s public elementary schools should be reading at grade level by third grade. The latest reading SOLs show that far too many kids aren’t meeting that basic educational goal.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, “school divisions are required to provide reading intervention services to students in grades K-3 who demonstrate deficiencies on diagnostic tests.” The State Board of Education is currently reviewing proposed changes to the current Standards of Quality that would provide dedicated state funding to hire more reading specialists in the commonwealth’s elementary schools.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But merely spending more money and hiring more teachers is not enough. If doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is one definition of insanity, relying on the same teaching methods that are clearly not working for a large segment of Virginia’s public school students is another.

Mandatory retention policies are meant to disrupt the status quo and force the educational establishment to focus on making sure that all children are equipped with the reading skills they need to succeed in fourth grade and beyond. And with third-grade reading scores decreasing three years in a row, it’s time to consider enacting them in Virginia.

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The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star

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