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Social promotion bill clears first hurdle

SANTA FE – A measure that cleared the House Education Committee on Tuesday would retain third-grade students who read well below grade level and provide extra reading support for struggling students.

“Retention is a last resort but it has to be on the table,” said Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill.

Voting fell along party lines with the committee’s seven Republican members voting in favor of the bill, and its six Democratic members voting against.

Those who spoke in favor during Tuesday’s hearing said it is wrong to pass along students who struggle to read and that so-called “social promotion” has been a failed policy.

Skeptics of the bill questioned whether retention works, and some said it is harmful and could increase dropout rates.

“The evidence shows mandatory retention hurts children and doesn’t increase reading proficiency,” said Gail Evans, legal director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. The focus should be on literacy programs, she said.

YOUNGBLOOD: "Retention is a last resort"

YOUNGBLOOD: “Retention is a last resort”

Under the proposed law, any third-grade students whose reading score on the state’s standardized test falls into the lowest category would be held back beginning in the 2016-17 school year.

“This only applies to those at the lowest level. Those scoring near proficiency still advance,” Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera said after the hearing.

The retention provision would not apply to special education students, or students proficient in another language or students with less than two years of English instruction. Students also would not be held back more than once.

The bill also would allow students to meet proficiency by passing an alternative test approved by PED, according to a LFC analysis of the bill.

In the 2013-14 school year, 24.3 percent of New Mexico’s third-graders scored in the lowest category on the state standardized test, according to Public Education Department data compiled by the Legislative Finance Committee in its analysis of the bill.

Although very rare, current law allows schools to hold back a student if they are not at grade level, but a parent may block that retention. If the student is not proficient by the end of the next year, however, the student shall be held back but only for one year, according to current statute.

The bill also contains language about providing reading interventions for struggling students, which would come into effect next school year.

Students in grades kindergarten through eighth-grade would be screened during the ninth week of the school year. Lagging students would be put on a reading improvement plan for the year.

Some skeptics voiced concerns about whether there would be funding for the interventions.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said there is $37.7 million in the Gov. Susana Martinez’s budget for reading intervention programs.

But because funding for the interventions is coming “below the line” – disbursed by PED and not through the per-pupil funding formula – superintendents are fearful the dollars could dry up in future years, said Gloria Rendón, executive director of the New Mexico Superintendents Association.

The LFC analysis said the PED has yet to provide an estimate of potential costs related to the bill or an estimate of how many children might be affected, but it appears school districts will have to take on costs associated with the bill.

“In addition to the cost of educating a student for an additional year, school districts and charter schools can be expected to have increased costs associated with remediation programs, including summer and after-school remediation programs,” the LFC report said.

Asked about whether districts would incur costs, Skandera said, “It is a partnership. And there is an expectation that when (the money) flows through the funding formula kindergarten through third-grade students are not forgotten – and I’m sure they’re not.”