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States Expected to Focus on 3rd-Grade Retention

Elected officials in a couple of states are expected to take on one of the trickiest issues affecting elementary schools: how high to set the bar for allowing students to move between grades 3 and 4.

Governors in Iowa and New Mexico have proposed setting a reading skill level for students to advance beyond 3rd grade, an idea they hope their legislatures will take up as they convene this winter.

It's a proposal that a number of states have shown an interest in recently, though it's also a controversial one. Critics say flunking 3rd graders risks derailing their education at a young age; but supporters say the policies are needed to prevent students from simply being shuffled on to the next grade without regard for whether they're ready for the work—a practice they label "social promotion."

Many state officials have credited former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who placed an emphasis on building students' early reading skills, with having pioneered the concept.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, offered his support for the concept in a far-reaching series of education proposals released last year. In a recent interview with Education Week, Jason Glass, the director of the Iowa Department of Education, said he hopes to build legislative backing for the concept in the state legislature, where each party controls one chamber.

While the idea of retaining any student is an "awful prospect," Glass said, he added that "we're not doing students any favors by promoting them to the next grade and just hoping something happens" to help them academically.

In New Mexico, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is backing a similiar proposal. The governor has supported the concept as part of a larger early reading effort that would include support for new reading coaches and supplemental instruction for struggling students.

"We know that a child that can't read by the 3rd grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school," Hanna Skandera, the governor's education secretary, designate, said in a statement. "Our children will be the leaders of our state before we know it. It's time we give them the opportunity they deserve."

Skandera knows Florida's policies well: She once served as a top education aide to Bush.

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