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Should We Retain More Third Graders?

Under the state’s new education reform plan, my ADHD daughter Natalie almost certainly would have repeated third grade due to reading deficiencies. Is there really no other option?

Girl with ADHD looking frustrated and grabbing at hair while trying to read
Girl with ADHD looking frustrated and grabbing at hair while trying to read

Last Friday, Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Brandstad, released an education reform plan aimed at making Iowa’s public schools into World Class schools. One component of the plan, perhaps the most controversial, calls for ending social promotion for third graders who don’t meet a certain standard for their ability to read. Third graders would take a state-wide exam in March, with their promotion to fourth grade riding on the test’s results.

When I first heard the Iowa plan, I was appalled. I pictured local third-grade classrooms ballooning to unheard-of proportions and becoming a multi-year home to kids with LD, ADHD, and other disabilities, with all the social and emotional fall-out that comes with grade level retention.

My neurotypical son, Aaron, now 15, could have passed a third-grade reading exam by the end of kindergarten. But my daughter, Natalie, 11, is another story. She spent her first two years in extreme deprivation in a Russian orphanage. She has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with comorbid sensory processing disorder and anxiety. Her brain was damaged by exposure to alcohol in utero. Although she makes great strides each and every year in school, she has never tested at grade level in any subject, and probably never will.

In answer to protests from educators, and from parents like me, Brandstad’s plan includes “numerous good cause exemptions” for students with disabilities and English-language learners, for example. But specifics regarding those exemptions aren’t spelled out in the plan, which says only that the state will look toward “best practices” used elsewhere in the country.

So I Googled “good cause exemptions” to look for other-state models that Iowa might possibly follow. I found one example, in Florida, of a state statute calling for third-grade retention of all students who are not proficient in reading. Florida’s “good cause exemptions” applicable to kids with LD or ADHD are as follows:

  • Students who demonstrate an acceptable level of performance on an alternative standardized reading assessment approved by the State Board of Education.
  • Students who demonstrate, through a student portfolio, that they are reading on grade level as evidenced by demonstration of mastery of the Sunshine State Standards in reading equal to at least a Level 2 performance on the FCAT.
  • Students with disabilities who participate in the FCAT and who have an individual education plan or a Section 504 Plan that reflects that the student has received intensive remediation in reading for more than 2 years but still demonstrates a deficiency in reading and was previously retained in kindergarten, grade 1, grade 2, or grade 3.
  • Students who have received intensive remediation in reading for 2 or more years but still demonstrate a deficiency in reading and who were previously retained

in kindergarten, grade 1, grade 2, or grade 3 for a total of 2 years. Intensive reading instruction for students so promoted must include an altered instructional day that includes specialized diagnostic information and specific reading strategies for each student. The district school board shall assist schools and teachers to implement reading strategies that research has shown to be successful in improving reading among low-performing readers.

In the Florida scenario, my daughter could not have shown proficiency via an alternate to standardized testing, because she wasn’t proficient in reading at the third-grade level. And notice that the other exemptions only apply if the student has already been retained at a previous grade level!

I have no way of knowing if Iowa’s exemptions will mirror Florida’s, or if they will be significantly different. (And because I’m a mom, not an investigative reporter, I won’t fight to find out) I’m also not an expert in education. But the whole idea of grade-level retention, for kids with or without disabilities, rubs me the wrong way.

The good news in this plan appears to be a commitment to making sure every child is given the best possible instruction, and all the extra help they need (including summer school), tailored to their individual needs. For schools in which quality instruction is lacking, this could be a real boon. But Natalie has had an IEP from Day One of preschool, and I have every reason to believe that her teachers have been highly skilled and effective. She attended summer school once in preschool, and three times in elementary school, and I paid privately for tutoring every summer – and she still wasn’t proficient in reading at the third grade level by the end of third grade.

As I said earlier, I’m not an expert in education, or in the research about social promotion vs. grade level retention, but I appreciated this response, published in the Muscatine (Iowa) Journal, from an Iowan who is.

How would you react if this plan was being proposed in your state? Would your child with ADHD or LD be in danger of third-grade retention? If so, would you welcome that, or would you fight it? Although I don’t have to worry about this effecting my own children, I can’t help but worry for all the children with ADHD, LD, or a host of other disabilities, whose third-grade years are yet to come.

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