Between the lines
Addressing the problem
MARION — Emma Larson is sunk deep into the couch, concentrating.
Her mom, Kara Larson, seated next to her, enunciates one word at a time off a work sheet. It's the second week of school, and Emma is doing spelling homework.
“Crop,” Kara says slowly.
“Wait. Which way does the 'p' go again?”
“The line goes on the left side.”
Emma holds her pencil tightly, writes the word on a spare piece of notebook paper. Her dirty-blond hair is tied back in a ponytail. Her lips are pressed together in determination.
“Plan,” Kara says.
Emma writes each one, looks up and waits for the next.
Emma, 8, struggles with reading. She can read the words — though she sometimes stumbles over contractions and longer words — but she doesn't always understand what she's read.
Teachers have provided one-on-one help, and Emma spent time over the summer at a twice-weekly program that encourages reading. But she's now starting third grade — a deadline of sorts for learning to read, teachers say — and a passing score on a state reading test still narrowly eludes her.
There are thousands of students across Iowa like Emma. Roughly 8,800 third-graders statewide — 24 percent — failed the Iowa Assessments in reading last school year. That number hasn't changed much over the past several years, bouncing between 22 and 25 percent since 2007-08.
In an attempt to address that problem, Gov. Terry Branstad introduced legislation in 2011 that requires schools to test students in reading, starting in kindergarten, and provide extra help to those who need it.
Under the law, beginning spring 2017, any child who does not pass a reading test by the end of third grade must either attend a summer reading program or repeat third grade.
Retention — also known as holding students back, flunking or repeating a grade — is necessary to make the rest of the law work, current and former state education officials have said. While no one wants any student to be held back a grade, the threat of retention is what it takes to make sure students get the help they need, they have contended.
But teachers, parents and education officials worry that the law doesn't account for the needs or life circumstances of all students. And retention can make things worse.
Research has shown the practice does not improve long-term academic outcomes in most cases, and students who are held back are more likely to drop out of high school.
When the spelling exercise is over, Emma reads aloud to her mom. She gets through two picture books quickly, then goes to find another book — “Magic Tree House: Sunset of the Sabertooth.”
This one is harder. She reads more slowly, and stops on words such as “followed” and “huddled.”
“The wind was — biting? That makes no sense.”
“Yeah, biting,” Kara says. “That's what they call it.”
Emma continues for a page or two, then asks if she can stop.
“She loves reading to herself,” Kara says. “It's the reading to other people that she doesn't like, because she doesn't like to be corrected.”
In late 2011, Jason Glass's phone rang.
It was less than a year into Gov. Branstad's new administration. The governor had won back his old office by 10 points in 2010, defeating incumbent Democrat Chet Culver. After the election, he picked Glass, then 39, to lead the Iowa Department of Education.
On the phone was Linda Fandel, Branstad's education adviser. The governor was interested in legislation about third-grade reading and retention, she said, according to Glass.
He was immediately concerned.
“Initially my reaction was, I'm not at all certain this was the right thing to do,” Glass said by phone in late August. “And I'm not particularly comfortable with it.”
But in October 2011, Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds unveiled the proposal as part of their education blueprint. The law was designed to help children in early elementary school, Branstad said in a news conference announcing the plan. And retention “is always a last resort,” he said.
But the governor also argued in favor of retention for students who still need help.
“Promoting an illiterate child is far crueler than holding back a child to get them on track,” Branstad said at the time.
The law — patterned after similar legislation created in Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush — passed the Iowa Legislature in 2012 after Branstad spent significant political capital to push it through, Glass said.
Schools were required to give students new tests in reading for the first time last school year, choosing from a list of shorter, state-approved “screener” tests. The new tests don't measure all of the same things as the Iowa Assessments, but they're meant to be good predictors of how students will do on those larger exams, said Michelle Hosp, the former director of the Iowa Reading Research Center, which was created by the law. Hosp, now an associate professor of student development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, left the center on June 30
In a September interview with The Gazette, Fandel reiterated the governor's case for the law. Learning to read by the end of third grade is crucial for students because it's at that point children begin the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” she said. In other words, students in fourth grade are required to read more from textbooks and word problems, so reading skills become more important.
"Promoting an illiterate child is far crueler than holding back a child to get them on track."
- Gov. Terry Branstad
“Nothing's more damaging to a child than not being able to read, so they can do the work they need to do in school,” Fandel said. “That's the bottom line.”
The approach Iowa's law took had some success in Florida, said Glass, now the superintendent of Eagle County Schools in Colorado.
But when it comes to retention, he said, “what got lost in the conversation was on the balance, the evidence supporting it was vastly overwhelmed by the evidence that it's a negative effect.”
To try to prevent students from being retained, Glass said, he and the Department of Education staff helped put “safety valves” in the legislation, including some exemptions to the retention requirement that became law.
For Emma, the social part of school is the most important.
On the morning of the first day of school, she relaxes at home, watching TV with her brother, Evan, and waiting until it's time to go. Her pink dress has pictures of popcorn on it.
The Larsons are building a new house, so they're living in a rented duplex for two months. In the living room, part of the floor is covered by half-unpacked boxes of office supplies, backpacks, boxes of sidewalk chalk and two water coolers — the kind youth sports teams use. The kitchen counter is littered with a package of plastic cups, takeout containers, a mostly empty liter of Pepsi.
“Did you comb your hair?” Kara asks.
“Your brother's hair's not combed.”
“I know,” Emma says, looking at Evan. “It's crazy. I'm going to have to comb it.”
Emma is the third of four children, and the only girl. Her dad, Mike, is a web designer. Kara, the parent teacher organization president at Linn Grove Elementary School, is a stay-at-home mom and sells purses and other products for Thirty-One Gifts, an online retailer.
Emma will get one-on-one help with reading again this year. Her teacher, Mrs. Emily Anderson, is bringing treats for the first day, and Emma and Evan are looking forward to new options in the school lunch line. After school this fall, Emma will have cross-fit and dance classes, plus softball practice on Sundays.
But what is she most excited for about the new school year?
“Seeing my friends,” she says. “And talking to my teacher.”
It's that social aspect of school that can make retention a bad strategy for helping students, said Shane Jimerson, a professor of counseling, clinical and school psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara. Jimerson published extensive research on the effects of retention in the late 1990s and 2000s.
"Peers recognize them as these big, older 'stupid' kids."
Professor at University of California Santa Barbara
Other ways to address students' reading problems — including by designing individual lessons specifically for students' needs — are helpful, Jimerson said.
But holding students back can have negative effects on their academic performance in reading and math, as well as their social and emotional adjustment to school, he said.
“Children do not exist in some academic, ivory-tower bubble where all they're trying to do is pass an exam,” Jimerson said. Instead, he said, students navigate the social and emotional parts of school every day.
“Peers recognize them as these big, older 'stupid' kids,” he added of students who are retained.
A study by Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with ties to former-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida retention law, also found that retention had initial benefits, but that they disappeared after five to six years.
Branstad's administration took those concerns into account when it crafted the law, Fandel said. But she argued that retention is necessary to make the rest of the law work.
“We don't want to see any student held back,” Fandel said. “But we do want to create pressure on the system to pay more attention to helping struggling readers.”
But it's not as if teachers aren't trying now, said Brad Buck, the Cedar Rapids Community School District superintendent and former Iowa Department of Education director.
“Everyone is working as hard as they can with what they know,” Buck said. “I don't believe there's a teacher in the state that's sitting there with a whole bag of tricks” that they're not using.
Iowa's third-grade reading and retention law, starting in 2017, will require any student deemed “substantially deficient” in reading at the end of third grade to attend a summer program or repeat third grade.
Schools were required to give students new tests in reading last school year in the fall, winter and spring. The tests are given to students in kindergarten through third grade.
The new tests don't measure all of the same things as the Iowa Assessments, but they're meant to be good predictors of how students will do on those larger exams, said Michelle Hosp, the former director of the Iowa Reading Research Center.
Schools could choose from a list of state-approved tests to fulfill the requirement. One test, called FAST, is supported by the state and used by most schools. The FAST test has two parts — one measuring fluency and the other measuring vocabulary, comprehension and word recognition. Schools can choose which part their “substantially deficient” designations are based on.
The following is a sample from the third-grade FAST test.
The responsibility of educators
There's a sea of children at the entrance to Linn Grove Elementary School.
Packed between the two sets of double doors and slowly flowing inside, they chatter in small groups. It's a late July morning, and many wear brightly colored T-shirts and athletic shorts. They're here for R.O.A.R. — Readers on a Roll! — a voluntary summer program where they'll be read to today by a Marion police officer and get to check out books of their own from the school library.
Inside, Mary Ellen Oglesby faces the wave of chaos, struggling to be heard as she directs everyone to the right rooms.
Oglesby — Mrs. O., as students call her — has taught reading for 17 years. She works during the school year as a reading teacher at Linn Grove. She also teaches college students online through the University of Wisconsin, helping more teachers get their reading certification.
She's a foster parent at home, where she's helped foster children and now a foster child's daughter start learning to read. And in the summer, there's R.O.A.R.
Once things quiet down, Oglesby sits at a table in the hallway, passing out snacks and finding nametags for the last few children who filter in.
The program, which runs two mornings a week for four weeks, helps 100 students per day on average, Oglesby says.
But she worries about the children who aren't coming — the ones who live in a trailer park nearby, or the girl who made huge progress in reading last year, only to return to Mexico for the summer where she won't hear much English spoken.
“I don't know how to get them here,” Oglesby says, her voice quiet.
For Oglesby, other teachers and parents, the possibility of retention brings concerns that the state reading law doesn't account for the needs or life circumstances of all students.
Children struggle to read for different reasons, Oglesby said, and learning to read isn't as easy as it's portrayed to be in “Tarzan of the Apes,” where the title character teaches himself by looking at books in his parents' cabin.
“If we can find these kids in kindergarten and by the end of third grade they're still not proficient, what are we doing?
- Michelle Hosp
Former state reading center director
Some students need more explicit instruction about the sounds letters make and how those combine to form words, Oglesby said. Others can read each word on a page but don't understand what they're reading. For some low-income students, or those who come from immigrant families, they simply have not been exposed to enough vocabulary at home. And some children have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.
Getting 100 percent of students to read, or at least very close to 100 percent, is realistic, said Michelle Hosp, the former state reading center director.
“If we can find these kids in kindergarten and by the end of third grade they're still not proficient, what are we doing?” Hosp said.
“They have four years to fix it,” she said of schools. “They should be able to fix it.”
But teaching reading doesn't work with a one-size-fits-all approach, Oglesby said.
“This isn't a business,” Oglesby said. “It's not manufacturing things. It's teaching children.”
“They're not a product. They're a kid.”
Why kids struggle
Penelope Fritz, a second-grader at Coolidge Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, has struggled with reading since at least first grade. Her mom, Jennifer Fritz, isn't sure why. Penelope has been exposed to books since she was very little, Jennifer said, and she reads aloud nightly as part of her bedtime routine.
But Jennifer got a letter from Coolidge about Penelope earlier this year, saying she's at risk of being held back after third grade. She said she would do everything she can to prevent that from happening.
“There's going to be a lot of fighting and arguing and me pretty much standing my ground and saying it's not going to happen,” Fritz said. “There's just no indication in any of her other subjects that it would be remotely necessary.”
For Jack Rekers, a fourth-grader at Hoover Elementary School in Iowa City, the problem was his eyes.
As a young elementary school student, Jack had messy handwriting and didn't want to do math, said his mother, Kristy Rekers. He also struggled with reading and got extra help in first and second grades.
It wasn't until third grade, however, that Jack's parents had a “light bulb” moment. On the way home from school one day, Jack's dad, Jason Rekers, asked about reading, and Jack said the words were sometimes jumbled on the page.
Jason took him to the eye doctor, where he was diagnosed with convergence insufficiency, an inability of the eyes to focus on one point. After several months of vision therapy, including exercises to strengthen his eye muscles, Jack was above grade level in reading.
In Emma Laron's case, she is too old to be retained — by the time the reading law takes full effect, she'll be finishing fourth grade. Kara is optimistic about the law — she said it could help identify and address students' needs early on in elementary school.
Kara has no problem with retention, she said, but “you kind of cross your fingers and hope that (your child is) not going to be one of them.”
Emma was prescribed eyeglasses a few years ago, but she rarely wore them, Kara said. They didn't fit well, Emma contended.
One of Emma's older brothers, Owen, went through vision therapy a few years ago, Kara said. There have been some signs that Emma has similar eye problems, but the family has held off on therapy for her, in part because of the cost.
The Larsons' insurance covered part of the therapy, Kara said, but they still paid about $100 per week for about six months.
In the meantime, Emma more than tripled her score on the state reading test last school year, Oglesby said. But she still came up short of the score required to pass.
Iowa's reading law can help address those needs by catching struggling students early in elementary school, especially when it's paired with the state's teacher leadership system, said Buck, the Cedar Rapids superintendent and former state director.
When he was state education chief — after Glass — Buck said he tried to focus on the early intervention aspects of the law.
“From a purely big picture perspective, I was and am optimistic and excited” about it, he said.
But he also has had concerns about state funding for implementing the law — currently $8 million statewide — and the children who might be held back.
The summer reading programs schools will be required to provide can be successful, Buck said. In a pilot program, funded by a donation, at Hiawatha and Nixon elementary schools in his district this summer, students showed academic progress. Among 47 students who had good attendance at the program, 51 percent improved their scores on a reading screener test, and 53 percent passed the test this fall — up from 50 percent this past spring.
But the pilot program this summer cost about $500 per student, Buck said. At that rate, he said, a districtwide program alone could eat up all the school district's allocation from the $8 million in statewide funding. That would leave the district to pay for the extra reading teachers it needs during the school year out of its own budget.
- The percentage of third grade students considered 'substantially deficient' in the Cedar Rapids Community School District in 2014-2015
Retention also comes with a financial cost, Buck said — for each year a student is retained, taxpayers would have to pay for an additional year of per-pupil state funding. For the 2015-16 school year, that amount is $6,446.
It's possible that no students will be retained, Buck said. But attending a summer reading program — designed to be the last safety valve to prevent retention — might not be possible for all children, he said.
Parents working two jobs might not be able to make sure their children get on the bus to attend the program, Buck said. And families who are homeless would be difficult to find and would have more pressing concerns than school.
“My worry is there's going to be some kids retained because of life circumstances they didn't choose,” Buck said. “I believe reading is terribly important. And then there's a reality part of, 'Yeah, but I've got to get something to eat tomorrow and a place to sleep tonight.'”
“Can you go grab me my fishies?” Emma asks her mom. She sits cross-legged on the couch, head leaning back against the dark fabric.
“But I'm hungry.”
“You'll be fine.”
Eventually Emma goes to get them — a black and purple bag of astronaut-themed Goldfish labeled “SPACE SHAPES INSIDE.” The bag crinkles as she reaches in to grab them.
Emma went to the eye doctor this week, Kara says. It's a Friday night, the fourth week of school.
“He looked at her eye movement, and they're still moving a little bit opposite of each — not opposite, but they're not moving together, still. And she is a little bit farsighted.”
Emma was prescribed glasses. She's not happy about it.
“I want black ones,” she says. “'Cause I don't like brown glasses.”
Now leaning on the couch, she scrapes the last bites of ice cream out of a plastic cup. Strands of hair fall over her face.
“This has been the argument for the last two days,” says Kara, who favors brown frames. “We haven't purchased them yet because we're going to take grandma to go look at them.”
“Cause she thinks they're awwwfulll.” Emma makes a face. “She prefers brown ones.”
“I hate brown glasses.” She licks her spoon, pointing her chin at her mother in defiance.
Emma is going to try glasses for a year, Kara says. If her reading doesn't improve after that, and her eyes are still having trouble, they'll start vision therapy. She took the state reading test again this month, and again came up just short.
Emma has time, and her mom and Mrs. O. are hopeful that glasses will help her reading. The end of third grade still is a long way away.
For now, she tosses a light-up ball into the air and dives to catch it. She has to go to bed early tonight — she's going to her aunt's wedding tomorrow.
“You've got to dance all night again,” Kara says.
“Eh,” Emma says. Then her voice rises. “Well, I will dance. But I don't like the 'go to sleep early.'
“Nine,” she suggests as a bedtime. “… 30. Or maybe how long I want.”
Digital Editing by Clare Murphy, Video and Photo by Liz Zabel, and Interactives by John McGlothen
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