Kentucky Third-Graders Would Have Been Held Back Under This Proposal. Here’s What Changed.

Last week, Kentucky found itself playing a high-stakes game of “Would You Rather?” But this time, it affected a much different demographic than we’re used to: third-graders.

Following the lead of states like Ohio, Indiana, and Florida, Kentucky considered adopting a real catch-22 of a policy that would require struggling third-graders to be held back for failing an end-of-the-year reading test. It had a lot of education-minded folk in Kentucky concerned.

The Prichard Committee, for example, warned against passing any kind of requirement that would result in student retention. Like many teachers, they argued that holding kids back would have unintended consequences. Some critics even called out the proposal as a scheme to punish Kentucky third-graders for their own shortcomings.

While this is no endorsement, I personally didn’t think this retention plan was as bad as it was chalked up to be. Kentucky’s proposal would have only been reserved for students not meeting a very basic “apprentice” level on their end-of-year exams, meaning that only the very lowest-performing third-graders would be in danger of retention.

So Kentucky ignored the critics, adopted the policy, and inspired teachers to focus on helping the weakest third-grade readers become literate. Right?

Not a chance.

It seems like the criticism from groups around the state actually made the difference, because last week, Kentucky lawmakers dropped the third-grade retention idea all together. Based on the feedback they received from stakeholders across the state, the committee decided to bypass the retention idea and instead focus on teacher preparation programs, particularly in elementary reading and math.

See? Calling your representatives actually works sometimes.

Instead of launching a retention plan right out of the gate, this plan takes a more calculated approach to ensure that elementary students are getting great reading instruction in the first place, before they start pushing to hold more Kentucky third-graders back.

That actually makes a lot of sense, especially after what we’ve discovered from Emily Hanford’s reporting on literacy. Too many elementary schools have strayed from research-based methods of teaching kids how to read, meaning that student deficiencies are sometimes the result of ineffective teaching in schools themselves.

So instead of juggling between holding kids back or passing kids who can’t read, Kentucky will bypass that debate for now and instead focus on raising expectations for early childhood teachers. Not bad for a consolation prize, if you ask me.

It’s not the same level of accountability that the retention plan would have brought, but enhancing teacher preparation programs was something on Kentucky’s to-do list anyway. At the very least, it should help address some problems without creating any new ones.

Of course, that raises some new questions. What kinds of things should we expect from good teacher prep programs? Fewer classes, more teaching experiences? Requiring pre-service teachers to spend more time in diverse schools? As Kentucky continues the conversation on raising the bar for all students, I’m sure that’s the next conversation to be had.


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