Third-Graders Who Can’t Read Face Repeating Grade Under Senate Bill

April 29, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SchoolkidsThousands of S.C. third-graders potentially could be held back if they can’t read at their grade level, under an advancing Senate bill that would create a new “Read to Succeed” program likely costing millions and creating a new level of bureaucracy.

And at least one Palmetto State educator has concerns about the legislation, which would be modeled after a Florida program.

Based on current statewide enrollment figures, more than 2,700 third-graders in South Carolina would be at risk for being retained for not meeting reading standards under the bill (S. 516), sponsored by Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and the Senate majority leader.

Although the legislation was introduced more than a month ago, the projected costs of the program to taxpayers have not yet been released publicly.

“The SCDE is researching and evaluating the cost of the bill,” said Department of Education spokesman Jay Ragley said in an e-mail last week to The Nerve.

The Senate’s K-12 Education Subcommittee last week sent an amended bill to the full committee. It likely, however, will be held over until next year, given a deadline Wednesday for legislation approved by one chamber to be sent to the other chamber.

Two similar House bills were introduced earlier this month, though neither has moved out of committee.

Ragley said he would have a fiscal analysis of the bill prepared by the next full Senate Education Committee meeting, which hadn’t been scheduled as of last week. At Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing, senators discussed the possibility of redirecting $6 million in Education Improvement Act funds earmarked for reading improvement.

Peeler insisted during the meeting that the initial program costs would pale in comparison to the potential consequences down the road.

“We’re going to pay for it in tax payer dollars upfront,” he said, “or we’re going to pay for it in juvenile justice and our jail system.”

Peeler and S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais agreed upon several amendments to S. 516, including the elimination of a proposed “Read to Succeed Office” within the state Department of Education, though the subcommittee voted to retain the office in the bill.

The subcommittee passed the following three amendments to the bill:

  • Only third-graders who fall “substantially” below reading standards would be held back;
  • Additional reading training would be required only for early childhood and elementary teachers; and
  • Enactment of the bill would be subject to funding.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and a subcommittee member, expressed concerns during last week’s meeting that if there is not adequate funding for the program while requiring retention of students who don’t meet reading standards, poorer school districts would be at a disadvantage.

“If you don’t make the funding absolutely necessary, then it’s a disaster,” he said.

In an email last week to The Nerve, Paul Thomas, a Furman University associate education professor, took issue with a similar reading program in Florida, after which the proposed S.C. program is modeled.

“Test-based policies will negatively and disproportionately impact high-poverty and minority students because high-stakes testing remains biased by class and race,” he said.

“High-poverty and racial minority students are over-represented in low test scores in South Carolina and across the United States,” Thomas continued. “Thus, if retention policies are based on test scores, high-poverty and minority students will be retained disproportionately and suffer the overwhelmingly negative consequences of retention.”

Thomas initially outlined his concerns in a guest column earlier this month in The State newspaper.

Asked by The Nerve about Thomas’ views, Peeler replied: “We have a drop-out rate that’s absolutely devastating to our economy. In order to help these children, we must identify these children early and teach these kids how to read.”

“All these people come up with these personal opinions,” he added. “If we do nothing, you’re going to have a fourth-grader who can’t read on the third-grade level; you’re going to have a seventh-grader who can’t read on the third-grade level; you’re going to have an 18-year-old who can’t read on the third-grade level. That’s unacceptable.”

In 2009, the budget for Florida’s version of the program – dubbed “Just Read, Florida!” – included $4.6 million from its legislature and $4.2 million in residual funds from the $300 million that Florida received from 2003 to 2009 as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, records show.

South Carolina currently has 54,466 students enrolled in third grade, using the 45-day average daily membership count, according to Ragley. On the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) test, approximately 20 percent of third-graders score in the lowest-two levels of the test, though under an amendment passed last week, only students scoring at the bottom level would be at risk for being held back, he said.

Assuming that 5 percent of third-graders score at the lowest level, 2,723 students statewide could be held back, based on current enrollment figures.

As for teacher training, an amendment would require certified teachers to take at least one reading course to be incorporated as part of their 120-hour recertification requirement.

“One college course is the equivalent of 45 recertification hours,” Ragley told The Nerve. “Since teachers must already complete 120 hours for recertification, this would not be a new cost to them. Also, the amendment would require colleges and universities to incorporate reading courses into their undergraduate programs of study.”

The stakes are high, Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said at last week’s subcommittee meeting.

“If you can’t read, you can’t do anything else,” he said.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.