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House passes bill to hold back 3rd-graders on reading

SANTA FE – The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday night requiring schools to hold back third-grade students who struggle to read.

The 38 to 30 vote came mostly along party lines, with only one Democrat voting in favor.

The so-called “third-grade retention” bill, which now advances to the Senate, would mandate all third-graders who score in the lowest category on a state reading test be held back in school beginning in the 2016-17 school year. The bill also would increase support for struggling readers.

Democrats and Republicans agreed struggling students need more reading supports, but the bill’s provision calling for mandatory retention of struggling third-graders was at the center of Wednesday’s debate that lasted three hours.

“Retention is a last and final safety net to make sure our students are proficient” in reading, said Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill.

Youngblood said New Mexico fourth-graders have some of the lowest reading scores in the nation and students who can’t read by the end of the third grade are less likely to graduate.

Students gather at Adobe Acres Elementary School. A "third-grade retention" bill was approved by the state House of Representatives on Wednesday night.

Students gather at Adobe Acres Elementary School. A “third-grade retention” bill was approved by the state House of Representatives on Wednesday night.

Democrats who spoke against the bill said mandatory retention is an ill-conceived solution and would take decision-making power away from parents.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, spoke against the bill and said there are a host of studies that linked retention with increased dropout rates.

“I think passing this is actually a terrible idea,” McCamley said.

A substitute bill offered by Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, had the same language as a bill that dealt with retention and passed the House in 2011 by a 62-5 vote but never made it out of the Senate.

Martinez said he offered the substitute because the 2011 bill would have given teachers and parents more say over whether to retain students and would not rely solely on a test.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said the new bill was superior because it would offer early notification to parents if their student was struggling.

“This bill is stronger,” Roch said.

The substitute died on a 37 to 31 vote.

Earlier in the night, Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, offered an amendment to the bill that would have made retention optional.

“I believe we need a case-by-case approach to each student, not a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach,” McQueen said.

The amendment failed on a 37-31 vote.

Current law allows schools to hold back a student if they are not reading 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 retention provision in the bill that passed the House on Wednesday would not apply to special education students, 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 contains language about providing additional reading supports for struggling students, which would come into effect next school year.