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Does Tough Love Work With Third Graders?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, an openly transgender athlete is hoping for a spot on the U.S. track and field team for this summer's Olympics. We'll talk about the dilemma that is posing for the athlete and for the sport. We'll speak with Sports Illustrated writer and barbershop regular Pablo Torre about this, about the rules of sports and what they mean for a transgender person.

But we want to turn first from the sports field to the schoolhouse. Even though summer is usually a time for vacation and play, that won't be the case for about 16 percent of Indiana's third graders. Last March the state of Indiana rolled out a statewide standardized test that measures the reading abilities of third graders.

Most passed but the ones who didn't have to retake it this summer and if they fail a second time, state officials say that they will likely be held back in the third grade. The rule is new in Indiana but other states like Florida have been testing third graders with similar consequences for some time now. In a few minutes, we'll talk to NPR national correspondent Tovia Smith about the national picture.

But first we want to go to Indiana where we are joined by Kyle Stokes he is a reporter for StateImpact Indiana. That's a collaboration between member station WFIU, Indiana Public Broadcasting stations, and NPR. He's with us from Bloomington, Indiana. Kyle, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KYLE STOKES: It's good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So briefly how did this come about?

STOKES: Well, I think the touchstone for all of us has been that Florida policy which has been on the books there for about a decade. Really in 2010, Indiana had a big turnover in the legislature. A Republican-led legislature came in and we also have a Republican state superintendent, and this was one of their first to do's on their list.

So they passed this law back in 2010 that basically said we want to make reading instruction in third grade and in the early years of elementary school a real focus of our education policy. And as it was implemented in 2011 by the executive agency that controls education in the state, what sort of came out of it was this test called the IREAD-3, as you mentioned, this test that has a lot of stakes riding on it.

Obviously, it has the potential to hold back students. But it sort of came from the idea we have to put a focus on reading in third grade and we have to send a signal to the state schools that this is the most important thing in those early years.

MARTIN: So you can understand the logic. A lot of people say, you know, third grade is kind of this pivotal point. If you're not...

STOKES: Right.

MARTIN: ...reading at grade level by third grade it has huge implications down the line, that you just fall behind and you can't catch up. But the downside of this is what, Kyle? Because I understand you interviewed a student and you want to tell a little bit more about that. So what's the downside of this?

STOKES: Absolutely. It obviously comes - I mean it's a very tough love message to say that retention is the way that we're going to handle this and it leads to a lot of really tough situations. You mentioned a student that I spoke to. His name is Ethan Brown and he's a third-grader who's in Franklin, Indiana which is just outside of Indianapolis. And Ethan did not pass this past March by just about three points.

He got a 443 on a test where you're supposed to have a 446 to pass. And this is something that none of his teachers say that they saw coming, and now he's sort of faced with this possibility that he could be retained if he doesn't pass a retake of the exam in June. And so he's kind of been working frantically to catch up with his teachers and with his mom, who are just sort of working the best they can through this situation.

MARTIN: But I think the gist of the interview is there are people questioning whether this tough love approach does more harm than good. So let's just hear a little bit of the tape of you interviewing this young boy who failed, and along with his mom. First we're going to hear the boy, then we're going to hear his mom. We're also going to hear you. Here it is.


ETHAN BROWN: I started crying, telling myself I was stupid 'cause I didn't pass that test.

STOKES: Really? You said you were stupid?

BROWN: Yeah, 'cause just for one test I didn't pass the third grade. I said I didn't pass the third grade. And I told my mom that. I said if you don't pass this test, you have to do the third grade all over again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It breaks my heart that my child thinks I'm stupid because he failed one test. It does, it really hurts me. It's just not fair. It's not fair to a nine year old, to have to feel that way about passing. Or even just to have to worry about failing.

MARTIN: Just for point of clarification, you said that it isn't one test. You get two bites of the apple. So that's not exactly right, but on the other...

STOKES: Exactly.

MARTIN: But on the other hand, here is Stephanie Sample, whom you also interviewed. She's the spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education. This is what she had to say.

STEPHANIE SAMPLE: It gives them a tool they never had to go to our parents and say, look, we've always known this kid can't read; now I've got something that can prove that your kid can't read. What we think the best recommendation is, is for this kid to stay in the third grade classroom because that's where we can provide him the instruction he really needs.

MARTIN: So, Kyle, what about that? Do you have a sense of which of these scenarios people in Indiana, the parents, the stakeholders, think is really true?

STOKES: It's so hard to say, because it depends on how broad your scope is when you're looking at the policy. I think if you look at the very narrow idea of retention, the idea that you hold a student back as late as third grade is something that really just fundamentally rubs teachers the wrong way.

I haven't talked to a teacher yet who said that this makes sense based on the research that I've been exposed to, based on the practices that I've done in the past. And the idea is that retention really has been proven to, on its own, not really work all that well. But on the other hand, I think there's a whole other group of evidence that again sort of clusters around this policy in Florida that looks at how, really, reading scores in fourth grade there have shot up.

And these reading scores, the needle doesn't move on these reading scores that much and so seeing the gains in Florida and saying, you know, with these past retention studies we weren't comparing apple to apples; maybe what we're doing when we're building a reading policy that says we have this tough love in third grade, maybe we're building in some of the remediation, trying to build in some of the fix of the problem.

And not just holding students back and hoping that one more run through the wash is going to take out the stubborn stain. I feel like there's a whole other group of people that says we're actually doing a whole lot more on the second time through. And the potential is this could really help out a student like Ethan. He could be the exact student who benefits from this kind of a policy. That's a possibility too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. That was StateImpact Indiana reporter Kyle Stokes. Joining us now for a national look is Tovia Smith. She's a national correspondent for NPR. Welcome to you, Tovia. Thank you for joining us.


MARTIN: Well, Kyle's just presented a very interesting scenario here, very much kind of a mixed bag of data, but is there a lot of interest around the country in doing what Florida has been doing and what Indiana is now starting to do? Are you seeing this elsewhere?

SMITH: There is. Oklahoma, Arizona also passed similar requirements, and others are considering it. And you can understand the interest because basically everybody agrees that reading is not where it should be for these kids and that this is a pivotal point, as you say, where kids move from learning to read to reading to learn.

And so the reasoning goes if kids don't have basic skills by the end of third grade let's just keep them there until they get the skills and they can move on. And while some have criticized this whole kind of reader flunk idea as punitive or mean spirited, as you mentioned, those who are pushing it say it's actually the opposite.

That it's just waiving kids on when they're not ready is what's mean, because you're setting those kids up for failure and keeping them, they say, is giving kids the extra time they need to actually have a shot at being successful.

MARTIN: You heard Kyle say that the data is kind of mixed on this, that people are seeing different results in different places. Tovia, could you just talk a little bit more about that, of what research that you've looked at shows on this question?

SMITH: Right. The data - most of the focus is on Florida that's had this for about a decade - and that shows that kids who repeat third grade do show improvement in fourth but those gains tend to taper off in the longer term. So critics look at that and they say, you know, duh. Of course kids are going to do better after they've had a whole extra year of instruction and they're a year older.

The real question is how do kids do compared to how they would have done if they didn't stay back, and that's a tough one to answer. There's one study out of Chicago suggesting that there was no gain, and also there's this growing batch of research focused on the downside of retention, that's basically backing up what you heard in Kyle's conversation with Ethan who talks about how devastating it all was.

There are studies that show that there is real damage, socially, emotionally. Kids who are retained end up more likely to drop out and teachers and parents lower their expectations of them. And so, there is this mounting evidence that the idea does more harm than good.

MARTIN: What about the tests itself, Tovia? You know, in recent years, you know, we've seen various tests litigated all the way to the United States Supreme Court when they had large consequences. You know, tests, for example, that dictate promotions in jobs for adults, you know, or academic tests that are very persuasive in college admissions. What about the tests itself? Are people asking, you know, what does the test really measure and is it really a good test?

SMITH: Absolutely. There's a lot of concern around that, especially for kids this young. You know, kids will know what's on the line. There are a lot of kids who might be good readers who might well just kind of crack under the pressure of it all and not do well on the test.

And there are some states that build in a little bit of wiggle room here. So, a kid who fails can essentially appeal it by getting a portfolio of his work or her work and the principal becomes the judge as to whether the kid is ready to move on. There is some argument that that weakens the law.

But, you know, my take-away from all this is the one expert who said there's very little research on this and both sides are overstating the very little research that there is. And that might not be unique to this situation, but I think it's a fair assessment that the research is not quite conclusive on this one.

MARTIN: Kyle, we want to turn back to you, briefly. You've been following the third graders who might have to retake the third grade. And I just wanted to ask, how are they doing? What are you seeing with these students?

STOKES: We're just getting into this summer month as school gets ready to let out here. And now, these students face kind of this slog through summer to get to the retake that starts on June 13th. They have until July 28th. There's kind of a window where you can take that test.

I mean, these are students who - I mean, Ethan put off summer plans. He was going to spend summer in Florida with his grandma, and he sort of had to put this off. And I think that, you know, they're going at this with as much gusto as they can. And I think teachers that you talk to will say, we're very confident about how this turns out.

About three or 4,000 of the students who did not pass are within 16 points of passing, very, very close to that finish line. And I think a lot of the teachers are really confident that they can push those kids over that finish line and get them there.

It's not going to be great to lose part of your summer for a kid like Ethan. But, again, you get back to this sort of debate as to whether or not this could be the best or most pivotal summer in his academic career or if this is just something that, again, is viewed as sort of a punitive measure. But teachers are really confident that they can sort of push as many over that finish line.

MARTIN: StateImpact Indiana reporter Kyle Stokes joined us from member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. We also heard from NPR national correspondent Tovia Smith. She was with us from Boston. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you, Michel.

STOKES: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.