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EDITORIAL: To lift literacy, end social promotion

The illiteracy that plagues Nevada’s public schools is directly related to low high school graduation rates. If children don’t learn to read, they can’t read to learn. The more they fall behind, the more likely they are to drop out.

Last week’s Nevada Literacy Summit, held at UNLV, featured brutally honest discussions about the state’s dismal reading achievement — as reported by the Review-Journal’s Trevon Milliard, federal assessments show only 27 percent of fourth-graders and 30 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in reading — and a consensus on what it will take to turn it around: halting social promotion in the third grade.

Children are doomed to failure when, lacking basic proficiencies, they’re nonetheless advanced to higher and higher grades. More demanding coursework becomes more frustrating. Worse, students receive passing grades despite their poor performance, giving them and their parents the false belief that they’re prepared for more rigorous material. Identifying students who struggle to read, providing them with focused instruction and denying those who don’t improve advancement to the fourth grade is a no-brainer.

It’s too bad Nevada didn’t adopt “Read by Three” (for grade three) three years ago, or last year, when it had the chance. Gov. Brian Sandoval first pitched the plan in 2011, based on its success in Florida, but his proposal went nowhere. The plan returned in 2013 as Assembly Bill 161, but the relatively low projected cost of implementation ended up killing the bill. Nevada would be much farther along in boosting literacy if the plan were already in place.

Better late than never. On Thursday, Gov. Sandoval told the Review-Journal he would again push for “Read by Three” during the 2015 Legislature. Good. The literacy summit, sponsored by the education advocacy group Nevada Succeeds, should help build support for the end of social promotion in this state. Developing that support prior to the start of next year’s legislative session is important because lawmakers will have many details to sort out.

Ending social promotion would radically change K-3 classrooms across the state. Reading assessments in early grades suddenly would have much higher stakes. At the first sign a student is losing ground in reading comprehension, parents must be notified that their child is at risk of being held back, then reminded of the importance of reading at home. Specialists must be available to support the nonproficient.

Just as important as assessments and instruction, however, will be the third-grade reading proficiency test that decides whether children advance to fourth grade. If the state somehow settles on a passing score with a bar below third-grade proficiency, the system will fail Nevada’s children yet again. And if the state creates exemptions and loopholes that allow the nonproficient to advance despite failing the test, it will defeat the purpose of the standard.

Such rigid accountability scares various constituencies. No doubt, once “Read by Three” is in place, a lot of third-graders will fail to advance despite interventions. But to advance the unprepared is to fail them. Ending that practice is far better — and far more honest — than the dismal status quo.

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