By the time Santa Fe public middle schools enroll some of their incoming students, it's already too late, De Vargas Middle School Principal Diane Garcia-Piro tells SFR. In the seventh grade, many of them are still working at a third-grade level.
New legislation introduced in this session seeks to correct that problem, but in spite of support from peer-reviewed research, it faces strong opposition.
House Bill 69, introduced by Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Doña Ana, would hold back third-graders who don't perform at grade level. It has the strong support of Gov. Susana Martinez, who made education reform the cornerstone of her State of the State speech Jan. 17. Martinez referenced comments made last September by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a White House visit by Martinez administration officials.
"If your students keep being allowed to leave third and fourth grade without being able to read, you're not doing them any favors," Duncan told state Public Education Department Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera.
Skandera, who had input in Garcia's bill, has recently come under fire for applying Florida reforms, such as the social promotion ban and a new A-F school rating system, to New Mexico. Last week, a political action committee also unveiled a weighty report alleging Skandera is in the pocket of for-profit educational service providers. But according to Jay Greene, chairman of the University of Arkansas' Department of Education Reform, Florida's social promotion ban is one measure worth copying.
"Florida has made incredible gains on [the National Assessment of Educational Progress] since those reforms were instituted," Greene, who has followed legislation banning social promotion across the country, writes SFR in an email.
In 1996, before Florida banned social promotion, 55 percent of its students tested at or above basic proficiency level in math. By 2011, that number was 84 percent.
Texas is a similar case: Like Florida, it passed legislation banning social promotion in 2002. In 1996, 69 percent of Texas fourth-graders demonstrated basic math proficiency; last year, 86 percent did. Those are two of 14 states nationwide that have enacted such legislation.
Greene's research found that banning social promotion lifts scores in two ways. Students who know they will have to repeat the school year if they don't succeed have about a 4 percentage-point increase on standardized tests compared to those who don't have to worry about that consequence, according to a 2004 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research study. In addition, Greene found that low-performing students who were held back to repeat a grade performed almost 10 percentage points higher the following year than low-performing students who were promoted.
But Bill Beacham, principal at Acequia Madre Elementary School in Santa Fe, has two concerns about the bill. He says remediation for struggling students needs to start long before third grade, and he also questions where districts will find the money to help those students catch up.
"The intervention can't happen in third grade," Beacham says. "There has to be some things way before that for it to work properly, and that's not going to happen within the same financial structure we have now."
Beacham adds that, in his time at Acequia Madre, he has never held a third-grader back, but only students in the earlier grades, whom he says can take better advantage of an extra year.
Garcia's bill actually does provide for remediation, and even optional retention, for struggling students in kindergarten through second grade, as well. Kids would be screened, beginning in kindergarten, and provided with remedial help if they are falling behind.
"That's the key part of this legislation, the remediation and intervention," Garcia says, "because we hope that, with all of this remediation and intervention starting in kindergarten, by the time they get to third grade, it won't be necessary anymore."
Parents are required to pay for remedial measures, but if they can prove indigence, that responsibility falls to the district. In Santa Fe Public Schools, which currently can't fund full-time nurses at each school site, it's hard to see where that money would come from—and the bill doesn't provide for a direct appropriation.
Martinez' fiscal year 2013 budget recommendation includes $17 million for reading ability assessment and coaches in grades K-3, though, which spokesman Scott Darnell says would help districts provide the remediation prescribed under the proposed law.
Another open question is how well the measure would work for New Mexico's many English language learners. State Rep. Ray Begaye, D-San Juan, introduced a joint memorial requesting a work group of education experts to study how third-grade retention issues relate to nonnative English speakers. For those students, being held back a year "may have an impact on the retained student's self-perception," the memorial states.
Begaye tells SFR that he isn't opposed to ending social promotion, but feels there are still too many unanswered questions about how it would be implemented.
"I'm certainly in agreement to some degree, but I want to know it will be effective," Begaye says. He chose to have his two daughters repeat third grade, but later regretted it, realizing that, unless teachers try different strategies, retention alone may not help struggling kids. The Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education approved a resolution Jan. 17 that urges the legislature to continue allowing social promotion and to increase funding for early intervention.
Some research has suggested that being held back can lead kids to eventually drop out of school altogether, but Greene says those studies are poorly designed. Since most states implemented social promotion bans relatively recently, he says, it's too soon to know for sure how they affect high school graduation rates, but "we would expect that the significant increase in academic achievement for retained students should also translate into a lower dropout rate, not a higher one."
Garcia's bill does contain an exception for students who have had less than two years of English instruction. Beacham says those kids are already tested too early and are under pressure to meet certain benchmarks.
"It's too much for kids to deal with, to learn a second language and all the educational concepts that come with trying to pass a test like that," Beacham says.
Begaye's memorial also questions the validity of New Mexico's testing system. It states that the system may be inaccurate and unreliable for students in special language categories and enjoins the work group to come up with an alternative metric by next year's legislative session.
But as the state reels from consistently poor national education rankings, Garcia warns against going down the more-research rabbit hole.
"That's been the problem," Garcia says. "We're going to study and study and study and not make some real direct legislation that we need to implement as soon as possible."