Reading the Future: Is 3rd Grade Retention on the table?

At the first meeting of the Special Committee on Pandemic Recovery and Literacy, hand wringing was abound. One BESE member specifically called for Massachusetts to explore a legislation to implement potential changes in early literacy. Don’t worry, the ink is barely dry on the last round of mandates of Early Literacy Universal Screening Assessments so it is never too soon to do more.

Recap: The BESE members participating discussed the current trends around the latest Science of Reading (SoR) and recent work by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to support districts in transition to new materials. Or new-new materials. (Note: The wonks here at The Policy Minute are old enough to remember the last few trips around the Reading Wars. Anyone else remember Reading Recovery?) This includes the Growing Literacy Across Equity Across Massachusetts (GLEAM) grant funds and the Multi-tiered System of Support in literacy.

You can watch a recording of the full meeting here. DESE did not post the meeting materials or presentation files on the BESE website. The data shared was nothing new. Massachusetts NAEP 4th grade Reading scores are still leading the nation.

The BESE members did hear a presentation from an invited guest representing ExcelInEd.The ExcelInEd legislative and policy model calls for individual student literacy plans, professional learning for educators, family engagement and retaining students at the third grade. Their model also calls for specifically prohibiting certain instructional materials as a matter of state legislation. A 2021 analysis of state policy alignment to the ExcelInEd model highlights states such as Florida, Mississippi and Ohio as states for Massachusetts to emulate in policy and practice.

Elementary school retention is always a spirited discussion. It looks like there is a national push to reinvigorate the idea of retaining students at the 3rd grade specifically related to reading proficiency. Education Week, National Conference of State Legislators and even The 74 are wringing their hands over if this is a good idea. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) was tracking the spread of 3rd grade reading legislation back in 2017.

While BESE is framing the discussion as a pandemic recovery issue, any retention policy would not go into effect for the current students who were actually impacted by the pandemic. Students who were in Kindergarten in 2020-21 are now in the second grade. Given the glacial pace of policy implementation in Massachusetts, elementary students who were impacted by the lack of support during the pandemic will be well past the third grade if this every sees daylight.

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