More than 10,000 South Florida third-graders — or one in five — are at risk of being held back a grade next year after flunking the state’s reading exam.
Scores released Friday by the Florida Department of Education show 6,000 youngsters in Miami-Dade and another 4,000 in Broward County failed the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a critical benchmark in determining whether those children will be promoted to the fourth grade.
The results show a slight uptick in the number of failing students from recent years, even though the overall reading scores of third grade students in Miami-Dade and Broward County schools showed improvement in a year where overall the state plateaued. Throughout Florida, 33,000 third-grade students failed the test, though many will be promoted through exceptions.
“We find this [retention] policy has worked very well for Florida’s students, and as a result of this, our students are performing better,” said Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. “We feel this is the right approach.”
The scores from writing exams and third-grade math and reading tests are important for schools, which receive their state-issued letter grades based on test performance. Thousands of teachers also receive their evaluations based largely on their students’ reading and math scores.
A larger release of Florida test scores is expected in coming weeks.
But the results released Friday are most critical for third-grade students, who since 2002 have been required to score at least a 2 out of 5 on the reading exam to avoid the threat of having to repeat the third grade. The policy was put in place under then-Gov. Jeb Bush as a means to thwart “social promotion” and boost reading proficiency.
Since then, the percentages of third-grade students passing the state’s reading exams has risen notably, and the number of failing students has dropped. Students who fail the test also have other opportunities to pass to the fourth grade, including retaking the FCAT during a summer reading camp and being promoted because they performed better on a series of standardized tests during the course of the year.
But, even as states around the country have adopted third-grade retention laws, often at the behest of Bush’s education foundation, the policy of retaining 8-year-olds based largely on one test remains a controversial practice that for critics is an example of testing gone haywire. One California researcher who studied retention found in the mid-2000s that older students compared the stress of being retained with losing a parent or going blind.
“We’re putting so much pressure on them at such a young age,” said Mindy Festge, a third-grade reading teacher at Skyway Elementary, where one-third of the school’s 70 third-grade students failed the test. “Trying to explain to an 8-year-old how important a reading test is, it’s very difficult.”
Festge said she called her students up to her desk one by one Friday morning and told each of them their score, including those who failed. Some students cried. Others told her they should have tried harder. “When you think about a test that is two days and it makes or breaks their educational career in a way, it’s really sad,” she said.
Like Stewart, Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education argues that retention programs are spurring successes in Florida. Mary Laura Bragg, the foundation’s national policy director who led Florida’s retention program under Bush, wrote last week that Florida’s third-graders “have advanced a full grade level” compared with their peers in 2002.
“This is despite the fact that Florida has higher percentages of low-income and minority students. These traditionally disadvantaged children are driving the state’s success,” she wrote in an opinion piece in the North Carolina Observer.
But while Florida’s test scores show minority students are faring better on reading exams than a decade ago, they also show that black, Hispanic and poor students continue to be disproportionately affected by Florida’s retention law. Close to one in three black students, and one in two English Language Learners, failed the reading test this year.
In Miami-Dade and Broward, there were 22 schools this year where half or more of all third-grade students failed the reading exam, all of which, save charter schools, were high-poverty, high-minority schools. Four — Liberty City and Ethel F. Beckford Elementary in Dade, and The Red Shoe Charter School and Thurgood Elementary in Broward — saw 60 percent or more of their third-graders flunk.
Still, most of the students who failed the reading exam will not be retained, said Nathan Balasubramanian, Broward’s executive director of strategy & continuous improvement. In Broward, only about one-third of those who failed during the last two years were held back. In Dade, about half of third-graders who failed were retained.
“It’s going to be a ridiculously small number,” said Balasubramanian.
Officials in both districts noted that their overall third-grade reading scores increased while the state’s remained flat. They also said schools with high failure rates receive extra resources. In Dade, for instance, the district considers reading scores with added weight when deciding where to place extra resources, according to chief academic officer Marie Izquierdo.
But Izquierdo said the state’s accountability and retention policies do present a greater challenge for poor, minority children, particularly in elementary schools. She saw the stress that the state’s retention policies put on some students new to the English language when she was principal of Henry M. Flagler Elementary, a school with high academic scores but also a high number of immigrant students.
“These kids were literally sick. They would throw up,” she said. “They were wrecks because they were very nervous about these tests.”
Going into 2014, Florida will adopt a new set of exams created to assess new Florida Standards, the state’s tweaked version of the Common Core standards being adopted across the country. But Education Commissioner Stewart said the Department of Education will look to set reading exam cut scores in a way that school districts can expect to see the same number of students facing retention in 2015.
“We’ll reflect back so that the percent of students retained doesn’t change,” she said during a conference call with reporters. “We’ve got a long history of success having this policy in place.”