ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new study from the state Public Education Department shows that parents are rarely informed that their children can’t read, even though state law requires schools to do so.
According to PED data released Sunday, roughly 6,800 New Mexico third-graders performed at the lowest level on reading exams last year, yet only 338 letters went out to their families.
In Albuquerque Public Schools, home to more than one-fourth of the state’s students, 1,975 third-graders were not proficient in reading and the district sent out just 82 notifications to families. The number on non-proficient third-graders promoted to fourth grade was 1,935.
Under state statute, schools must send notification if a student in first through seventh grade is not academically proficient in reading. Parents who receive such a letter are supposed to sign a waiver to allow their children to advance to the next grade.
“This confirms what we’ve long suspected: New Mexico’s parents aren’t getting the information they need to support their kids,” Gov. Susana Martinez said in a prepared statement. “Instead of telling parents that their child isn’t on grade-level, they’re kept in the dark and schools are passing their kids onto the next grade. That is unacceptable. It’s time to give our parents the information they deserve, and our kids the support they need to read and succeed.”
PED’s data also shows that 96 percent of third-graders who don’t meet literacy benchmarks are going on to fourth grade, a practice that sets them up for failure, according to Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.
Skandera, who has long pushed legislation to hold back kids at third grade if they can’t read, said the status quo is clearly not working.
“This is certainly a call to action for everyone,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to pull together during the legislative session and say, ‘OK, what are we going to do? How do we work together to create a solution?'”
APS spokeswoman Johanna King said administrators did not have comment on PED’s data release because they had been in a budget meeting Monday afternoon and hadn’t had time to review the numbers.
But King stressed that teachers are in constant contact with parents about student performance and schedule conferences twice a year. The most recent elementary school parent-teacher conference was held in late November; another is set for early March.
Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, an advocate for third-grade retention, argued that formally notifying parents about poor reading grades will help keep them as fully informed as possible.
“There is a huge disconnect and disservice to, not only the student, but the families that should have this information,” she told the Journal . “We can’t pretend like this isn’t a critical issue in our state. … Parents need to be part of this discussion from the very, very beginning.”
For the past three years, Youngblood has introduced bills designed to stop “social promotion,” a term for passing students along when they lack basic proficiency. Youngblood will most likely bring back “some version” of the bill during the upcoming legislative session, but she plans to conduct a deeper review of PED’s data before hammering out the details.
“I want to work with PED and some school leaders to see what is currently happening,” Youngblood said. “Right now, current statute isn’t being followed. We may not need the bill that I have been running if current statute were being adhered to.”
The best approach, Youngblood said, may be to “put more teeth” into the existing parental notification law – forcing districts to follow it or face penalties.
“We should be holding kids back if they are not meeting the standards, but how we do that seems to be the question,” she said. “As a parent, if I have no insight from kindergarten through third grade or fourth grade that my child is even struggling, much less can’t read at the lowest level, of course I am going to be upset at fourth grade and say, ‘What do you mean you want to hold my child back?'”
Past social promotion bills have hit furious opposition from Democratic lawmakers, who argue that holding back third-graders is punitive and ineffective.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the “third-grade flunking bill” is “punishment for 8-year-olds,” not reform.
“By the time they are 8 or 9 years old, they are part of a social group and their own cohort,” she said. “The adults call it retention and the kids know what it is – ‘You flunked the third grade.'”
Stewart had not heard about PED’s new findings on parent notification, but argued that kids who are struggling to read need to receive more support, particularly in early grades, and that comes down to adequate budgets for teacher salaries and materials.
“We are creating this problem ourselves by our lack of funding for resources,” she said. “Thanks to my colleagues who are really trying to study this issue, we will be not passing this bill once again.”
In recent years, Skandera has pushed to increase funding for reading interventionists who help low-performing students catch up.
Both sides of the third-grade retention debate can cite data to support their stance.
A 2013 report from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found retention’s achievement gains “fade out over time, and are statistically insignificant after six years.”
On the other hand, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s national longitudinal study shows that students who can’t read by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have used some form of third-grade retention, which was pioneered in Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Skandera served as Florida’s deputy commissioner of education before moving to New Mexico in 2010.