Governor, Democrats at odds on retaining thousands of 3rd-graders
Gov. Susana Martinez appeared at an elementary school Friday to trumpet improved reading scores in certain grades and to renew her call for mandatory retention of thousands of third-graders who lag behind on reading proficiency tests.
Martinez, right, called gains by high school students on the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment an “historic achievement,” saying they had improved academically because state government heightened expectations.
The tests also showed statewide declines from last year in reading proficiency rates by students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
“These students represent each of the third-grade classes that posted declines in the last three years, and provide a strong case for enacting legislation to prevent the passage of unprepared students to subsequent grades. Social promotion is not compassionate,” Martinez said during a news conference at Bernalillo Elementary School.
Republican Martinez’s calls for mandatory retention of third-graders have been rejected by the Democrat-controlled Legislature since she took office in 2011. She said it was time to put aside politics and approve a bill forcing retention of third-graders who are not reading at grade level.
Martinez said third grade was a landmark because students who are not reading well then will not be able to keep pace academically later on. She cited a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that said students not reading well in third grade were four times more likely to drop out of school.
State Sen. Bill Soules, right, a teacher from Las Cruces, challenged Martinez’s push for retention of third-graders based on standardized test scores.
“There is no scientific evidence that shows retention of students improves graduation rates,” Soules said in a telephone interview after the governor’s news conference.
In fact, he said, holding back kids en masse drives up dropout rates because it demoralizes students and sends them through recycled programs.
For instance, a child held back in a smaller district would likely get the same teacher and same curriculum two years in succession, Soules said. Merely forcing a kid to repeat a grade will not result in a success story, he said.
The only surefire approaches to improving reading proficiency and graduation rates are strong early childhood education and reading intervention programs, Soules said.
A freshman Democrat, Soules became one of his party’s leaders in fighting Martinez’s retention initiative. He said flaws in the governor’s proposal were many.
“And I’m always suspicious of cherry picking data from executive summaries” of reports, Soules said. “If you really look at the Annie E. Casey study, it says that students living in poverty are five times more likely to fail in school.”
Soules was a sponsor of a bill to raise the minimum wage across New Mexico by $1 an hour, to $8.50. Martinez vetoed the measure, ending a chance to help parents at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, Soules said.
“If we improve the lot of the least among us, we increase the chances of students succeeding,” he said.
Martinez also is at odds with many Democrats in the Legislature on increasing funding for early childhood education. She opposed a proposed constitutional amendment to use a portion of a multibillion-dollar state endowment for early childhood education.
The performance of high school students was the shining success in this year’s standardized tests, Martinez said. The assessments were given to students in third through eighth grades and 10th and 11th grades.
Eleventh-graders gained 9.9 percentage points over 2012. This was the best showing since the state began administering the tests in 2007, Martinez said.
“When factoring in the gains that were also posted by this class when they were 10th-graders last year, these students have increased their reading proficiency rate by 20.8 percent and math proficiency rate by 12.7 percent over the past two years,” Martinez said.
The governor said she also was heartened by a narrowing of the achievement gap by ethnic minorities.
Eleventh-grade reading proficiency gains were higher for Hispanic, Native American and black students than they were for white students.
“It’s no coincidence that new accountability measures at the high school level have led to increased expectations and achievement,” Martinez said.
As for third-graders, the group that Martinez most often focuses on, their reading scores were up about 3 percentage points from 2012. Minority students in that class also improved at a higher rate than white students.
In all, nearly two-thirds of the state’s 89 school districts showed improvement in reading levels of third-graders.
Martinez said some of the most dramatic gains were in the 12 school districts and one charter school that received initial funding in a program called New Mexico Reads to Lead. Reading coaches and other targeted investments in reading instruction showed good results, Martinez said.