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How I Handled...

A 25% Failure Rate
On State Reading Tests


A quarter of our third graders tested at the lowest level on this year's state reading test. According to state mandate, that means we cannot pass those students on to fourth grade. What can we do to help as many of these kids achieve and earn promotion? How can we ensure that we won't face this same issue next year?

The Problem:

Our third graders did not fare well on the latest state reading achievement test; 25 percent of them scored at the lowest level in reading. Our state's policy dictates that students who score at the lowest level must be automatically retained. Given our situation -- we will be retaining a full quarter of the class -- is there anything we can do now to retain fewer students? What causes can we identify for this high percentage of failing students? What can we do to ensure that next year's results are a big improvement over this year's? Those are the problems we face.

The Solution:

When faced with news of the high failure rate on the state reading tests, our first step was to take a look at whatever data we could gather to determine if some variable jumped out as the "cause" of our students' poor results. We looked at data on a class-by-class basis. We compared students' results at the end of second grade to their results at the end of third grade. We examined the reading instructional materials we use and the amount of time devoted to the literacy block in our students' school day

Class to class, the only variable that jumped out as a difference-maker was a comparison of year-over-year scores. That comparison indicated, almost unanimously, that students who did poorly on the reading test last year [in second grade] were the same ones who failed this year. We were aware of the high number of low-performing students who were entering third grade this year, and we put great energy into working to build those skills. Indeed, year over year, the students showed gains; but, for many, those gains were not enough to lift them up a level. Could it be that this group is just, on average, a lower-scoring group? (Last year, only 14 percent of third graders failed the test.) All the data we looked at seemed to lead to that conclusion. But we were still left with this huge problem: retaining a quarter of a class!

In order to boost the number of third graders who will move on to fourth grade in August, we will hold a "summer reading camp." Our state allocates money for a 3-week session, but this year our reading camp will last four weeks. Attending the camp is the only way students can "reverse" the retention decision. At the end of that session, students must score at or above the 51st percentile on the SAT 9 test to be promoted.

This situation has served to renew our commitment to boosting scores for next year's third graders. We have taken a close look at the incoming third grade class. All those second graders who scored at the lowest level have been invited to be part of our summer reading camp too. We think that will help prevent the backslide that often occurs in students' reading skills over the summer months; it will enable those second graders to have a running start on their third-grade year.

We are also looking closely at all test data for our K-2 population to determine the approaches we must take in the lower grades.

Finally, for the balance of this school year, all of our potential repeaters are getting an additional 30 minutes of reading practice and instruction. They meet as a group with our technology teacher, who is using the New Century program to enhance their skills in reading and math.

The Reflection:

We are trying to look at all the options and provide these students with all the support we can. We are also looking ahead. We are concerned about our third-grade teacher/pupil ratios for next school year if these students are retained. We will respond to that when we have a better idea about student population. (Our school suffers from high student mobility; 29 percent of our students were new to us this year.)

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.