Reading exams: Social promotion a big part of the problem

Among the first proclamations signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval is one recognizing that Nevada is failing to adequately teach our children to read by the third grade.

Among the “whereases” and “be it resolveds,” Gov. Sandoval’s proclamation observes that on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, 43 percent of Nevada fourth-graders lacked even basic reading skills and only 20 percent were proficient, while a mere 4 percent had advanced reading skills. This is well below the national average and unchanged since 2007.

In the proclamation, the governor encourages “all Nevada families to dedicate time each day to reading with the children in their homes” and urges all schools — public, private and charter — to “develop and administer a new common assessment that will gauge the reading proficiency of second graders before the end of the current school year.”

Critics immediately pointed out such testing is contrary to a 2009 law prohibiting additional testing, passed because lawmakers thought too many tests are being given already, taking valuable time away from teaching. The 2011 Legislature could certainly overturn that.

Gov. Sandoval’s objective is laudable and a proficiency test in elementary grades might be more important than the one for high school graduation. But does he — or state lawmakers or educators — have the fortitude to actually do what it takes to remedy the problem?

And that is: Don’t promote from third to fourth grade those who can’t read.

This is what Florida has done.

In 1999, Florida instituted secondary education reform, including performance-based pay for teachers, grading schools, annual tests and, most importantly, curbing social promotion. Florida students must pass the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test before being promoted to the fourth grade.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush notes that in 1998 nearly half of Florida’s fourth-graders were functionally illiterate, while today 72 percent can read.

It is not that teachers and parents aren’t aware of the reading skills of their charges. Three times a year, Clark County elementary school pupils are given short, unmonitored interim assessment tests, including a section on English Language Arts. Each child is given a percentage score on various skills and these scores are shared with parents during teacher conferences.

Fourth-graders are required to show they can read a story and “decode words in their text using phonics and structural analysis,” “explain the main idea,” “edit capitalization” and “edit sentences.” The problem is, students who struggle with these requirements are nonetheless sent forward to fifth grade.

If it takes a pass-fail proficiency test to convince parents little Jane and Johnny can’t read well enough to learn at the fourth-grade level, so be it. But data already available, including the judgment of qualified teachers, might be adequate to make the responsible decision to hold back children who have not mastered the material.

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