The Senate Education Committee on Monday tabled a bill that would hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level by the end of the school year, effectively killing the proposal for this legislative session.
“It’s dead,” said Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, who introduced House Bill 67.
This is the sixth consecutive legislative session in which some form of a reading-retention bill, supported by Gov. Susana Martinez as a cornerstone of her educational reforms, was stopped cold by Democratic lawmakers.
But this time Senate Democrats were joined by Sen. Gay Kernan R- Hobbs, in voting 6-3 to table the bill. Kernan’s vote was not a surprise. She had publicly expressed her concerns with Youngblood’s bill shortly after this year’s session began on Jan. 19.
Kernan told Youngblood that, while she is not opposed to retention, she does not like the idea that a third-grader’s advancement may rest on the results of his or her score on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, a test aligned with the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards.
“We’re punishing the child, not because they’re not good at reading but because [maybe] something happened in their lives,” Kernan said.
Committee Democrats told Youngblood that there is little evidence to prove that mandatory retention laws work and questioned the value of holding a child back based on the results of standards-based assessment tests.
“I don’t believe this is the right policy for the state of New Mexico,” Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, told Youngblood. Both he and Kernan said that two other states that once touted mandatory retention programs are backing off and changing their approach.
After Florida, for example, experienced problems with the Florida Standard Assessment exams, which students took for the first time in the 2014-15 school year, lawmakers passed legislation to allow districts more flexibility in determining whether a student should be promoted or retained — for at least a year.
And in 2014 Oklahoma lawmakers altered the state’s third-grade retention bill to leave the decision about whether to promote or retain third-graders to reading committees made up of parents and teachers through the 2017-18 school year.
Youngblood countered that research, including studies by the private Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows that students who are promoted without being able to read are at higher risk of not graduating or dropping out. She said that New Mexico’s adult literacy rate is one of the worst in the nation, with some 800,000 residents reading at or below a sixth grade level.
The New Mexico Coalition for Literacy reports that close to 900,000 adult New Mexicans are in need of literacy support.
In an effort to compromise with Democrats, Youngblood’s bill included so many exemptions — for students who have already been retained at least once, for special-education students and for English-language learners, for example — that ultimately it would apply to only about 2,000 to 3,000 of the state’s roughly 25,000 third-graders.
The bill also includes a number of intervention procedures designed to identify struggling students and help them as early as Kindergarten so that “retention would be the last resort,” Youngblood said.
Under current New Mexico law, parents can override an educator’s recommendation to hold back a student. Since taking office in 2011, Martinez has unsuccessfully tried to change the law so that the state has that right.
Based on 2015 PARCC tests results, just 25 percent of the state’s third-graders read at grade level.
Contact Robert Nott at (505) 986-3021 or [email protected].