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Larry Lee, a close follower of education politics in Alabama and former board member in Montgomery, writes here about an ill-informed decision by Governor Kay Ivey. Over the objections of experienced educators, Governor Ivey vetoed a bill that would have delayed implementation of the Alabama Literacy Act by two years. The Act requires that third grades be retained if they can’t the third grade reading test.
Larry talked to some of the educators he respects most, and they were appalled.
The phone rang about 8 p.m. on Thursday night, May 27. The person on the other end was dejected and discouraged. I immediately recognized the voice of Hope Zeanah, a 40-year veteran educator, assistant superintendent of the Baldwin County school system and a former Alabama Elementary Principal of the Year.
In my book, Zeanah is one of the best educators anywhere. She has learned a lot in her 40 years and knows how to convey her knowledge in a way that makes sense and is guided by what is best for children.
“I just wish politicians WOULD NOT make educational policies and leave educating children up to educators,” she said “It makes us feel like they are saying we are not smart enough to make a decision for our students whether or not they should be promoted to the next grade. I feel like these type decisions are the reason we are seeing fewer young people going into education.”
Larry reviewed the literature about third grade retention and saw that it was not only controversial but some of the most respected experts thought it was detrimental to children.
But Alabama has been looking jealously at Mississippi’s NAEP scores and trying to copy the state next door. The secret to Mississippi’s success in fourth-grade NAEP is that it retains poor readers in third grade. That’s not really a strategy, it’s cheating. But it works for Mississippi. Apparently the illusion of success works as well as genuine success. A recent issue of The Economist lauded Mississippi as a national leader in literacy. But Mississippi gets those scores by retaining more third graders than any other state.
“The so-called “Gold Standard” of all testing is the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). This test is given across the country every two years to a random selection of fourth and eighth graders. Only about 5,000 students in both grades are tested in each state. This is probably themost misunderstood and abused test in the U.S. (Especially by politicians who constantly want to break education down into only numbers.)
“(Go back to 2016 for a great example of misusing NAEP scores. The state school board picked a new state superintendent that year. Governor Robert Bentley had a vote and used it to be the deciding vote to hire Mike Sentance, a Boston attorney who had never been a teacher, principal or local superintendent. His reason? Massachusetts had the highest fourth-grade NAEP scores on math in the country. Sentance was a disaster and lasted only one year.)
“Truthfully, while no one pays much attention to retention info, they do like to compare NAEP scores.
“And Mississippi has done very well on NAEP in the last few years. In fact, they have made larger gains, particularly for fourth-graders, since 2013 than any other state. But it should be pointed out that Mississippi retains a higher percent of third-graders than any other state.
“So Mississippi is making sure its poorest performing kids are not taking the fourth-grade NAEP tests. It’s just like you told the third-grade teacher that you wanted to weigh all her students and get the average weight–but you can’t weigh the fat kids.“