Prevention and remediation key to smart third grade reading policies

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The adage that before grade three students learn to read, and after grade three they read to learn has become rather hackneyed, but that's OK—it's really true. States across the country—including Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee—are considering legislation that would bring down the hammer on social promotion for third graders who are struggling in reading. Most of these bills are modeled after groundbreaking legislation introduced in Florida more than a decade ago. But as states jump on the bandwagon, they need to look closely at what Florida did, which goes far beyond simply setting a standard for promotion.

A new paper by Marcus Winters shows the results of Florida's efforts. Third grade students who score below the literacy threshold are not automatically advanced to fourth grade and instead receive extensive remediation, including: 1) a summer reading camp, 2) assured placement with a "high quality" teacher in 3rd grade, round two, and 3) improvement plans that address the specific needs of each student. These students show large achievement gains immediately and continue to outshine a control group up to the seventh grade (as far as progress can presently be tracked). Even five years after initial remediation, these students are still doing well.

But Florida has done much more than just draw a line in the sand and offer remediation to struggling third graders. Its initiative recognizes that the underlying goal of a third grade promotion policy is to prevent the need to hold kids back. In fact, good reading instruction starts in kindergarten. Through Just Read, Florida!, the state has implemented one of the most comprehensive literacy initiatives in any state, with major efforts to make sure teachers can deliver scientifically-based reading instruction, track student progress and diagnose and develop intervention strategies for students who are behind.

It is all of these combined efforts that have led to dramatic increases in student achievement. In the last decade Florida led the nation in combined NAEP score gains for children with disabilities and had the third-largest gains for low-income students and the fourth-largest gains for black students.