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Don’t gut Read by 3!

Back in 2015, Republicans and Democrats joined together in Carson City to try a new approach to ensure students can read at grade level.

Dubbed “Read by 3,” the bill passed nearly unanimously and had as its central feature the idea that, if students couldn’t pass a state reading test by third grade, they couldn’t go on to the fourth.

Instead, they’d be held back and given intensive remedial instruction by specialized teachers, in the hopes of preparing them to move on.

It was an obvious improvement to the usual approach: promoting students even when they couldn’t pass the test. That had led to problems, as students progressed through elementary, junior and high school and fell behind because they didn’t have the reading skills they needed.

We know for sure that doesn’t work. So, Republicans and Democrats reasoned, why not try Read by 3, with a real consequence for failure?

Some warned that “retention,” as they called it, would be harmful to students’ self-esteem and well-being. But what effect does functional illiteracy have on self-esteem? What effect does not being able to read have on future job prospects or the likelihood a person may turn to crime? The Legislature reasoned that short-term pain would produce long-term gain.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and with only four inconsequential “no” votes in the Assembly (all from conservative Republicans who are now gone from the Legislature).

But now, the Democrats who control the statehouse are proposing changes to Read by 3, one of which would gut the major accountability provision of the law.

Under Assembly Bill 289 – sponsored by Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas, the chairman of the Assembly Education Committee – a child could be held back only with a parent’s written consent. Instead, kids in elementary grades would get intensive reading instruction, constant monitoring and frequent feedback. Additional literacy specialists would be designated and paid more.

There’s some merit to Thompson’s approach. Instead of competitive grants to pay literary specialists, the bill would create a fund distributed by demonstrated need. Intensive instruction and getting parents involved are keys to all students’ success. Close monitoring is essential so kids don’t slip through the cracks. Additional teachers – equipped with the training they need to help kids learn to read – are a must.

Then again, early data shows the additional money hasn’t solved the problem completely. More than 300 schools received money from a $68 million pool to improve literacy, as the state prepared for the hold-back provision of Read by 3 to kick in this July. But as the Review-Journal’s Amelia Pak-Harvey reported in August, 29 percent of third-graders in the 2016-2017 school year scored low enough on the state test to be held back. That’s more than 5,700 kids who don’t have an exemption from the law because they’re English language learners or suffer from a disability.

Now, the state estimates 9,000 kids are in danger of being held back.

Plenty of people say retention doesn’t work, including Jesus Jara, the superintendent of the Clark County School District, and two school psychologists who testified in favor of AB289 last week. They say it’s harmful to kids and can lead to bigger problems down the road.

But so can an inability to read. Can being held back a grade hurt more than the long-term, life-long consequences of poor reading skills?

The 2015 Legislature was right in making the judgment it did, affirmed by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. The 2019 Legislature is on the cusp of making a big mistake by gutting the accountability portion of Read by 3.

By all means, let’s adopt what’s good about AB289 – give teachers and parents the tools and resources they need, and give students the intensive teaching they desperately need. If we do that, the number of kids who are actually held back can be greatly reduced.

We know what we’ve done up until now hasn’t worked. Let’s at least try a plan with accountability before we scrap it.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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