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Governor's bill on third-grade reading standards raises eyebrows
Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker says she has concerns about the latest bill introduced in the Legislature that would require most students to pass the state's third-grade reading test before they could advance to fourth grade.
S.B. 169, the "Kansas Reads to Success Act," is Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal for making sure students can read at grade level before advancing beyond third grade. It would also add $12 million over two years for early-childhood literacy programs.
The bill was introduced Monday in the Senate Education Committee and is similar in many ways to H.B. 2004, which was introduced by Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center.
On the positive side, at least in DeBacker's view, the governor's bill would not take effect until the 2016-17 school year, meaning it would apply to students entering kindergarten next year. Huebert's bill would take effect immediately in the 2013-14 school year.
Also, the governor's bill would hold back only students who score at the "lowest achievement standard" on the third-grade reading test, whereas Huebert's bill would apply to a wider range of students who score below the "meets standards" level.
The governor's bill also adds money for intensive reading interventions at the early grade levels to bring more students up to proficiency.
However, DeBacker said, that money would be distributed through competitive grants funded through the Department of Children and Families, not the Department of Education, and decisions on the awards would be made by the Kansas Children's Cabinet, an agency more directly controlled by the governor since he appoints five of the nine voting members.
In addition, DeBacker noted, grants would be awarded to outside nonprofit organizations, or nonprofits working in cooperation with a school district, with preference given to organizations that provide at least a 30 percent match of "funds which are not state or federal moneys."
Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the governor's press secretary, said those provisions were "absolutely not" meant to imply that Brownback lacks confidence in the agency's ability to supervise public education. She said Brownback respects the department's role, but that the governor has been working through the Children's Cabinet on several other projects related to his "Roadmap for Kansas" initiatives.
Finally, DeBacker said, although she supports the idea that students need to have strong reading skills by third grade — the point where students move from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" — she said it was important to remember that it will have a disproportionate impact on minority and economically disadvantaged students.
According to data from the 2012 reading assessments, if the bill had been in place last year, approximately 4.9 percent of third-graders in Kansas (1.7 percent in the Lawrence district) would have failed to qualify for advancing to fourth grade.
Within that group, however, would be 7.9 percent of Hispanic children; 9.6 percent of black children; and 8.2 percent of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
Jones-Sontag, however, said that doesn't account for the impact of the early-childhood reading programs.
"The number of students who score in the lowest category is expected to decrease as the result of three years of the focused interventions required and funded as part of the Governor’s proposal,” she said.