In the coming weeks, bells will once again signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina, but there is a much more serious bell of doom sounding for our struggling third-graders because of the state’s punitive Read to Succeed law.
Read to Succeed is a popular program across the U.S. to retain students based, in part or fully, on third-grade reading tests.
Once again for South Carolina students, literacy policy fails to address valid practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with social conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.
Textbook worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for reading and writing assessments, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are not only misguided policies but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.
Decades of new standards and reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy. For a century we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy, but the political will remains lacking.
Instead of testing and punishment, a robust literacy strategy for schools must include addressing access to books in all children’s homes, insuring access to books in all children’s schools, and providing all students with ample time in class to read by choice.
We must also guarantee every student receives balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs) and discontinue the standards and testing disasters that dominate classrooms by providing teachers with the materials, time, and autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.
Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy impacts student achievement. The following would create higher student achievement and literacy: eradicating food deserts and insuring food security, providing universal health care to children and families with children, and creating job security for families with children.
Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills the public’s negative attitude about children and people in poverty, an attitude grounded in individual blame and punishment.
Decades of research have shown that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears after a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.
According to the National Council of Teachers of English, grade retention is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective. The council also says that basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English language learners, and special needs students. The group also notes that retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.
All children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third-grade literacy is both a manufactured statistic and a misleading emergency.
Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail significantly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most: black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, and special needs students. These populations are a large percentage of the students served in South Carolina public schools.
Struggling students in our state are viewed as lacking or broken and in need of repair and/or punishment to correct. Like No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.
P.L. Thomas, former high school English teacher and current professor of education at Furman University, has most recently published “Trumplandia: Unmasking Post-Truth America” (Garn Press, 2017), blogs at radical eyes for equity, and tweets under @plthomasEdD.