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Maryland May Join Other States to Retain Third Graders With Low Reading Proficiency

Public comment on proposed literacy policy open until July 19.

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A proposed literacy policy in Maryland could have third-grade students held back for a year if they don’t achieve certain reading scores on state tests, or “demonstrate sufficient reading skills for promotion to grade 4.”

Maryland would join more than half of states that allow third-grade students to be held back if the policy is adopted. The Maryland Department of Education is accepting public comments on the plan until July 19.

It comes as the state Board of Education and the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Accountability and Implementation board recently voted on aggressive goals to boost student achievement for the state, which ranks 40th in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known at the Nation’s Report Card. The goal is to put Maryland in the top 10 by 2027.

“It has been noted in several research studies that literacy is considered one of the key and pivotal priorities in education if we expect our communities, our states to prosper,” Tenette Smith, executive director of literacy programs and initiatives in the state Department of Education, said Tuesday. “We have to make sure that we are addressing kiddos’ needs, as well as their access to high-quality education. It becomes an equity issue.”

The proposed literacy policy would implement a reading intervention program for students in kindergarten through third grade who are identified with a reading deficiency or “need for supplemental instruction in reading.”

Students in those grades would be screened about three times, which includes for dyslexia, throughout the school year. They can also receive before- or after-school tutoring by a person with “specialized training grounded in the science of reading,” which focuses on teaching students based on phonics, comprehension and vocabulary.

The policy will also call for professional development for staff, which they will receive for free as part of the science of reading program.

A parent or guardian would receive written notification if their child exhibits any reading challenges during the school year. Students who are kept back in the third grade would receive more dedicated time “than the previous school year in scientifically research-based reading instruction and intervention,” daily small group instruction and frequent monitoring of the student’s reading skills throughout the school year.

The proposal includes a “good cause exemption” that would let students advance to the fourth grade if they are diagnosed with a disability described in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It would also apply to students with a Section 504 plan who are diagnosed with a disability and need “reasonable accommodation” to participate in school and school-related activities.

A good-cause exception could also be made for students who fewer received less than two years of instruction in an English-language development program.

Any student who received such an exception would continue to receive intensive reading intervention and other services.

No student could be retained twice in third grade, according to the policy.

Smith said the policy is similar to one drafted in Mississippa, where she worked with current Maryland State Superintendent Carey Wright. But a few main differences that focus on Maryland include the Ready to Act and state regulations to support students with reading difficulties.

‘Have to be creative’

According to a January report from the Education Commission of the States, about 26 states and Washington, D.C., implemented policies that require retention for third-grade students who are not reading proficiently, or allow those decisions at the local level. That report came out two months before Indiana joined the list, when the legislature in March approved a measure to retain third grade students who don’t pass a statewide assessment test or meet a “good cause” exemption, similar to the proposed Maryland policy.

A 2013 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation noted that students who don’t read proficiently by the end of the third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma. The gap could increase if a student comes from a low-income family, is Black or Latino, the report said.

Smith said there’s “a slight shift” in expectations when students enter fourth grade, and begin assessing multisyllabic words and doing more independent reading.

“When you are making that shift, you are providing more academic language and asking children to access or bear a heavier cognitive load. Kiddos are asked to do more word work,” Smith said. “As they progress from one grade to the other, third grade becomes that key grade level, that sort of gateway to being a fluent reader with the ability to analyze the text they are reading.”

Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost, who retires from teaching at the end of the month, said the state needs to assess who would provide the tutoring during the school day and before or after school.

“We are still in a [teacher] shortage. How we can retain staff and bring staff is going to be key to all of this,” she said Monday.

She also said reading intervention during the school day is “more desirable” than making tutoring before or after school the only option.

“When we do that though, we can’t pull kids out of the arts,” Bost said. “We have to be creative in scheduling because those other subject areas are important. Some kids really shine in those areas.… They have to learn reading in other context not just in what might be called a reading class.”

The policy is scheduled to be discussed by the state Board of Education on July 23. For those interested in taking the survey can go here, or send an email to literacy.msde@maryland.gov by July 19.

Maryland Matters is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Maryland Matters maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Steve Crane for questions: editor@marylandmatters.org. Follow Maryland Matters on Facebook and X.

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