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New chapter for grade 3 readers

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By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
OLYMPIA -- Third-graders who have trouble reading no longer face automatic flunking, thanks to state lawmakers. But there also is no guarantee that if those students are reading way below grade level they will move on to the fourth grade.
A new law which will take root in the fall of 2014 requires parents, teachers and principals to sit down together and chart the best path for helping those with the most difficulty reading.
Retention may wind up as the option for some, while summer school and extra classroom assistance in the fourth grade will work for others, lawmakers said.
"It's not a reactionary approach. We want to see significant change in some of these kids," said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, vice-chairman of the Senate education committee. "I wish I could flip a switch and have better outcomes."
It's a far cry from the controversial legislation he put forth in January which required most third-graders be kept back if they did not score above a certain level on a statewide reading test.
"I think the bill ended up in a better place. I think there is a whole lot of common sense in the bill," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, adding the kind of conversation envisioned in the new law is already taking place on elementary campuses.
In Washington, third-graders' reading skills are gauged by their performance on the statewide Measurements of Student Progress test, successor to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning or WASL.
Students are grouped by their scores in one of four levels -- Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. Those in the Below Basic level, which totaled 6,430 students statewide in the 2011 school year, are the targets of the new law, as well as of Dammeier's original legislation.
Starting in the 2014-15 school year, schools must keep parents better informed of their child's reading progress. To do that, report cards for students in kindergarten through fourth grade will include information on whether the student is reading at grade level.
In addition, schools will step up efforts to identify students with reading troubles before they reach third grade and provide them intensive reading instruction. Funding would come from the Learning Assistance Program which provides instructional support for students performing below grade level in reading, writing, and mathematics. Lawmakers added $143 million into the program over the next two years.
Dammeier's original bill ran into a firestorm of opposition from House Democrats, Gov. Jay Inslee and the education establishment, dying in regular session alongside other GOP education reform ideas like giving schools a letter grade based in part on student test scores and allowing principals to hire and fire the teachers they want.
In the second special session, much of Dammeier's bill got resurrected in Senate Bill 5946, an omnibus education bill which also deals with student discipline, professional development and alternative learning.
It included changes sought by opponents including replacing the term 'retention' with 'grade placement decisions'.
Dammeier called it "more constructive" language and allowed the focus to be on the goal of helping students who are not achieving well because they can't read.
"This is all about getting a strong reading foundation," he said.
Dave Powell, government affairs director of the education reform group Stand for Children, said the bill wound up stronger as it makes sure parents won't be surprised to learn their child is falling behind in reading.
"This bill requires something to happen. That is really important," he said. "Does this bill change all of the things in our system that we think need to be improved? No. But it does create a well thought-out strategy for a real problem."
Some Democrats who opposed the original bill because of its reliance on retention, backed the final bill.
"I'm not concerned about retention," said state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee. "We left that up to the parent and teacher and principal to make that decision. We want to make sure the schools have the flexibility."
But some didn't have a change of heart.
Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, a former teacher, voted against SB 5946 because it was a "grab bag of the things they tried to get in separate bills."
While it had a few good pieces, overall it contained too many top-down directives to public school educators, he said
"I thought it was micro-managing," he said. "The concern I had was these were the decisions that should be made at the local level."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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