Tuesday, November 26, 2019

TN: Doubling Down On Bad Reading Policy

Among the worst policy ideas of the past decades, we have to count third grade reading retention laws. These laws can sometimes give schools a brief bump in test scores, but the consequences for actual human students are not good. And some folks in Tennessee have decided that more of a bad idea would be super.

Why tell a eight or nine year old child that they failed third grade, even though they did passing work on everything but the reading test? The theory is that third grade reading ability correlates with later academic success, and since too many policy makers don't know the difference between correlation and causation, well, let's just hold them back. If you are cynical, you might also notice that this keeps the bad test-takers out of fourth grade, where the more high stakes testing occurs ("Look! Our fourth graders now read better than ever!").

Time to get to work, you little slackers
The policy also latches onto the idea that punishment, threats and fear are the best motivators. Maybe it's the teachers who have been holding back, or maybe it's those little eight year old slackers, but if we threaten them all with some tough consequences, maybe they'll try a little harder and the teachers will really teach and the students will try to learn, because that's probably the most likely explanation for why the third grade test scores are low.

In Memphis, school leaders have decided that's still going to easy on the little punks.

Proposed last spring, the district has now implemented a failure rule for second graders.

The policy comes courtesy of chief academic officer Antonio Burt, who is steeped in reformia, from his time with TNTP to his stint improving TVAAS scores to his time with the Achievement School District to his work as Director of School Transformation in Pinellas County, Florida.

The policy is now in place, and this year's kindergarten students will be the first to be affected, so they had better stop messing around and get to work. The chicken littling that put this policy in place is based on TNReady scores, the state's Big Standardized Test that just raised cut scores after years of being a giant clusterfarpfegnugen. This policy (and the third grade one) keep talking about "reading at grade level" as if that were a scientifically set thing, but grade level discussions often have the same problem as the old No Child Left Behind directive to make all children above average-- if your "grade level" is pegged at the top of a bell curve well then,, yes-- half of your students are reading "below grade level."

But beyond that is the fact that after years of these policies, we don't have a shred of evidence that they actually work. Yes, they get you a brief bump of scores on the test (almost as if these policies incentivize teaching to the reading test), but no long term benefits. They are the educational equivalen of private equity strategies that pull money out of a business right now while weakening the business's strength in the long term. Only instead of Toys R Us, we're talking about tiny human beings.

I cannot say enough bad things about this policy. The only thing that keeps it from being the worst idea ever is that it doesn't rely on the single data point of test results. But it's still indefensible.

"But our children can't read," will be the protest. If that's true (and I'd question whether "read" and "score well on standardized reading test" are the same thing), then threats and punishment will not be the answer. If the best motivation you can think of for a small child is a threat, then you probably should not be working with small children. Do you think it's the teachers? Then get them the training you think will help. Do you think it's a lack of resources for the children? Then get them the resources. Do you think that holding them in second grade "until they can read" is for their own good, I defy you to show me a shred of evidence to back that up.

Otherwise, get rid of this stupid, stupid policy.


  1. Or maybe students don't read as much because the ENTIRE information culture has been transformed? I mean, there's that. Or that little kids never *did* read much?

    There is an epidemic of fear, anxiety, depression and other disorders in young people. Could this possibly be attributed to the fact that from the earliest years in school, they're given to understand that society is the Hunger Games, and that if they don't level up, they're going to die.

  2. Or maybe we should be rethinking this lock step grade level system that says every child should be progressing at the same rate depending solely on their age. At the Intergenerational Schools in Cleveland, we have multi-age classes and students move through a series of developmental stages at their own pace. For most students, giving them a bit more time pays off exponentially in the long run...and more importantly they learn to LOVE reading for life, not to pass a test. The State of Ohio hasn't quite caught on yet, but we continue to fight this fight for our "tiny human beings."