Requiring third-graders to read or fail is unrealistic

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In theory, its a service to third-graders dramatically struggling to read to give them an opportunity to grasp this critical learning skill.

This concept is being pitched in a couple of proposals in the Legislature — one in the House, one in the Senate.

The House measure, HB 1452 sponsored by Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, would prohibit third-graders who score “below basic” on the state language arts test from being promoted to fourth grade unless they meet a “good cause exemption” or their parents don’t agree with the decision to hold them back. The Senate version is SB 5237.

It’s estimated about 8.4 percent of all third-graders would fail to meet the basic standard. So where would the money come from to put 8.4 percent more third-graders in public schools? The Legislature is already under pressure from a Supreme Court order to find more money, another billion dollars in the next year, for public education.

In reality, having 8.4 percent of third-graders repeat a grade will not happen. Forcing student to repeat is not socially acceptable any more. It’s the Lake Wobegone effect — gleaned from Garrison Keillor’s satirical jab using a small town where “all the children are above average” to make the point.

The proposed legislation will create more headaches for teachers and school administrators. These folks are already popping too many Advil trying to get students to meet state standards.

Most parents today complain — all the way up to school boards if they have to — when teachers suggest their child repeat a grade.

A lot of time, energy and money will be spent establishing which children would benefit from being held back and very little will happen. A few might be held back, not because their parents believe it is best for the child, but because the parents aren’t paying attention.

“The bill appears to think that we still live in an Ozzie and Harriet world where all kids come from two-parent families and that those parents will eagerly come to their children’s rescue,” said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, “Sadly, that does not exist any more.”

Hunt is right. The struggling-students-repeat-a-grade ship has sailed.

Still, the idea of targeting the third-grade as the make-it-or-break school year has merit.

“Before third grade, students are learning to read – after third grade, they are reading to learn,” Dahlquist said. “Every year we put that off is just another year lost after third grade.”

Hard to argue that point.

Yet, programs aimed at helping struggling students succeed are stretched thin as the need is greater than the resources available.

Like it or not, the Legislature is in no position to toss any more unfunded mandates at local school districts or try to micromanage the districts.

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