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In New Mexico, Disagreement About 3rd Grade Reading and 'Social Promotion'

Just what is the best approach to getting more 3rd graders reading on grade level has become the subject of a dispute between local and state officials and between political parties in New Mexico. 

New Mexico has a law that allows, but doesn't require, students to be retained if they are behind in 3rd grade reading. Earlier this month, the Land of Enchantment's education department released information showing that most of the state's 3rd graders weren't proficient on a state reading test—and that more than 96 percent of those students were promoted to the 4th grade anyway. 

The state's education secretary, Hanna Skandera, said that most students' parents hadn't received a letter from school officials notifying them that their child's reading levels weren't where they should be, the Associated Press reported.

But school districts pushed back against Skandera's assertion that the state's parents don't know what's going on, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports. Officials from several school districts said the state law doesn't require them to send official letters notifying parents, and that districts communicated the information to parents in other ways. 

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican, has supported bills that would make retention for those 3rd graders who don't score proficient on a reading test mandatory. This year, she mentioned 3rd grade reading in her State of the State address. A Republican representative told the Santa Fe New Mexican that another bill that would prohibit "social promotion" and require 3rd graders to pass the test will likely be introduced this session. But Democrats—who make up the majority of the state's House and Senate—have vowed to oppose it again. 

There's a reason New Mexicans are concerned about reading. The state has among the lowest adult literacy rates in the country, and its K-12 education system was recently ranked 49th in the country on Education Week's Quality Counts report. The state's legislature is considering bills that would address a budget crunch by cutting spending on K-12 schools, among other things.

As of last October, 16 states and the District of Columbia require students who aren't reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade to be retained, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fourteen of those allow some exceptions, and eight additional states (including New Mexico) allow students to be retained for not being proficient at the end of 3rd grade but don't require it.

As in New Mexico, such laws have often proved controversial. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new 3rd grade reading law in October, but the law attracted criticism along the way. A group of Florida parents led an online campaign against using reading test scores to determine retention. 

In Mississippi, a law that created a 3rd grade reading "gate" was recently strengthened—students must not score in either of the bottom two categories on the state's standardized test in order to pass the grade, unless they fall into a few excepted categories such as having an IEP or being an English-language learner. The state just joined the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national set of efforts to improve early literacy. But many parents have raised concerns about the law, saying there had to be a better way to get more students reading earlier.  

And there's often variation in how schools and districts implement such policies. My colleague Liana Heitin reported on North Carolina's literacy law in 2015 and found that most students who hadn't passed the test weren't actually repeating 3rd grade. 

My colleague Sarah Sparks reported that research suggests that holding students back may not have positive academic effects, and that some students are still developing reading skills later in elementary school. 


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