Saturday, June 24, 2023 | 2 a.m.
A just-updated Nevada law revives the possibility that struggling young readers will have to repeat third grade, but officials stress that support systems are in place to help students who fall behind and prevent that from happening often.
Provisions included within Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s omnibus education bill, which he signed this month, codify existing interventions and allocate new funding for literacy development well before third grade — a milestone that educators say is a critical time for young people socially and academically.
“Once students go into third grade, they’re really using reading to learn other curricular materials. It’s learning how to read versus reading to learn,” said Rachel Solem, director of the Clark County School District’s literacy and language development department.
“If they haven’t learned how to read by third grade it makes that reading to learn the new material more difficult for them,” she said.
Jhone Ebert, state superintendent of instruction, called the amended “Read by Grade 3” program a “doubling down” on building the foundational skill.
That’s long been a challenge.
Nevada’s public school pupils have chronically struggled to meet grade-level benchmarks in reading, even before the COVID-19 pandemic knocked back student achievement nationwide.
In 2022, only 39% of CCSD’s third-graders were proficient readers, according to state standardized exams. Although that’s an improvement over the 32% recorded in 2021, CCSD didn’t break 50% proficiency over the previous five years.
Statewide, proficiency is only a few points higher.
Nevada has had Read by Grade 3 in some form since 2015. Here’s what’s coming from this session’s updates within Assembly Bill 400:
• Retention: Starting in the 2028-29 school year, students who do not read at grade level in third grade, according to state standardized tests, could be held back. However, there are several opportunities for “good-cause exemptions.” Also, students can advance to fourth grade at any time during their second go at third grade if they demonstrate the reading proficiency. Retention was part of the original 2015 law, but it was repealed in 2019 with more academic support put in its place.
• Transitional settings: If, after a full second year of third grade, a principal thinks the student still isn’t ready for fourth grade, the principal and parents can place the child in a “transitional setting” to meet the fourth-grade standard. Ebert said this could take many forms, like after-school tutoring or classrooms where third- and fourth-grade material is blended.
• Heads-ups: If, based on their informal observations, teachers see that students as young as kindergarteners are struggling on their paths to literacy, principals must alert parents and suggest programs and services to get kids caught up.
• Continued interventions: Even once a struggling reader has moved on to fourth grade, whether they repeated third or got an exemption, the school will continue to provide intensive additional reading instruction as long as educators determine it’s needed.
• Summer school: Second- and third-graders who do not get a passing reading score on state exams will be offered the opportunity for summer school.
• The Early Childhood Literacy and Readiness Account: The state will set aside $140 million over the next two years for the Nevada Department Department of Education to award grants to support early childhood, including preschool, literacy and readiness programs.
As was the case with the 2015 version of the law, failing to show reading proficiency does not automatically mean being held back. The possible exemptions, which were the same in 2015 but repealed before they were initially set to go into effect, include passing an “alternative” standardized reading assessment; showing proficiency through a portfolio of work; being an English language-learner for less than two years; having been held back already; or having a disability with an individualized learning plan.
Katie Broughton, a legislative liaison for the Nevada Department of Education, acknowledges that generally, the decision to retain a student is difficult.
“Do we retain a student who’s not ready to move forward, which can be detrimental to their social success? Or do we continue moving them forward, which can be detrimental to their future academic success?” she said. “It’s hard, and that often does need to come with a lot of discussion with family. I think the opportunity to prove as much flexibility and opportunity for the schools to work directly with the families based on what it is that individual students need is really important.”
As a “reading strategist” at Lomie Heard Elementary School in east Las Vegas, Vicki Kreidel diagnoses students’ reading challenges, gives their parents and regular classroom teachers tips, and works directly with children in the school’s “reading center,” which she said was expanding next school year. Nothing in the Read by Grade 3 amendments will add to her duties, she said.
“I appreciate the fact that the state is telling schools and districts that we need to provide intervention for kids who are struggling readers,” she said. “I can’t tell you if that happens everywhere. I know it happened in my classroom and at my school, but even in my school, I don’t go in every classroom.”
She is critical of holding students back a year because it can negatively affect them socially and emotionally, and no data shows that two-time third-graders are stronger students by the time they get to fourth grade, she said.
“What people have said to me when I brought this up, they said, ‘Well, we have to do something,’” she said. “Yes, you’re right, we do. But this isn’t it.”
Kreidel has her own ideas about what works.
“We need to pay people extra money to do after-school tutoring programs so that the kids who are struggling can get some extra help after school,” Kreidel said. “We need the state of Nevada to give us money to fill our classrooms with books. When I came to Nevada 10 years ago, I was given a classroom with not one book in it. So there are things we definitely could do to help struggling readers – we don’t do any of the things that would actually help unless the schools choose to do it on their own.”
Solem said that CCSD was awaiting Nevada Department of Education guidance before looking too far into the future on instituting the new Read by Grade 3. Every elementary school has a Read by Grade 3 “literacy specialist” who, much like Kreidel the reading teacher, facilitates student literacy plans.
The specialists create these plans for all students, at all grades and reading abilities, and update them three times a year, Solem said. If a student is an at-risk reader, they reach out to parents. They also coach classroom teachers on best literacy practices and work directly with students.
Students learn to read at different paces, but there are still cues for educators. In kindergarten, for example, when it’s common for children to not be fluent readers, teachers introduce children to letter sounds and recognizing the letters in their names. If children struggle with their own names by the start of the spring semester, that’s a red flag, Solem said.
The specialists in the upcoming school year will add a half-hour “acceleration block” for all elementary students to improve their reading, even if they are on pace or ahead of their level.
“We’ve got our arms wrapped around these students with all of these levels of support, and we’re confident that we’re going to be able to move students forward with this plan,” Solem said.
Not all children have adults who read to them when they’re infants, which is key to developing strong young readers, Kreidel said. Others battled through the pandemic, either by seeing family get sick or die, moving around as parents lost jobs, or getting sick themselves.
Some elementary school students, she said, now feel that school isn’t important, or they’re defeated because they don’t think they’re “good at” it. And kids who struggle to read can lash out.
“The reading center is a way to help kids fall in love with reading,” Kreidel said. “And that’s half the battle.”