April in third grade used to be about flowers, shedding heavy jackets, and walking outside barefoot for the first time. It used to be about baseball season, fishing, the science fair, and creating colorful woven baskets or painting murals with ducks or bunnies. It used to be about practicing for the school talent show, reading favorite books in school, and going on outings and picnics with classmates. 

No time for that now. The line has been drawn in the sand. Today in America, at least in a growing number of states, April in third grade is about fear of flunking a test. Today, third graders are test prepping, and they’ve been doing so since the first weeks of school. The teacher’s and principal’s job is on that same line that was drawn in the sand. Parents have been coached about getting kids test-ready at home. The nation is watching. 

Fail the test and you get held back, disgrace yourself, and shame your parents. You may even cost your teacher and principal their job.

Back in the Good Old Days 

I remember my own third grade years: a kinder, gentler time. It was the year I won the prize at the science fair and my 4-H sow had fifteen piglets. Mrs. Baily made me the Valentine king that year. I knew the truth about Santa Claus in third grade, but none of us discussed it openly.

Third grade is important for implanting lasting impressions. It’s the year I started wearing thick eye-glasses and started thinking of myself as a nerd. I didn’t cast off that drag-me-down mantle until I got contact lenses in high school and escorted the homecoming queen. “Drag-me-down” mantles aren’t good for third graders with their tender psyches. Most thinking at that age is clear-cut, operational, step-by-step, based on their personal experience. More abstract thinking comes later. In my experience, third graders have a pretty concrete view of what’s right or wrong in their world.

Today the drag-me-down test in third grade takes a toll. Walk into a classroom of 21 third graders in a high-poverty neighborhood and statistics show that seven of them will not graduate from high school. The state test designed to lift them up informs them that they are already on the dropout path. It’s not their fault. Research shows most of them were on that path before they entered kindergarten. Research also shows that they can be identified and helped in kindergarten and preschool, but we haven’t started doing that.

Third grade used to be a great grade for teachers. It was for me when I taught third grade 40 years ago. My third graders loved school. They made me feel like a rock star. They trusted me, did everything I asked, and we had fun together. We read books instead of test prep and had fun with Beezus and Romona and rigorous texts such as Alice in Wonderland. They loved learning, not just the smart kids whose parents were professors at the local university, but also the third of my students who lived in the housing project. We all made adequate yearly progress. 

Where did the new third grade angst come from?

Test anxiety and third grade angst can’t be good for the soul. With all good intentions, our nation has made third graders world weary and shifted a burden on them before their time. Ironically, the cause of today’s third grade angst grew out of a call for something totally different. On August 18, 1988, at the Superdome in New Orleans, George W.H. Bush delivered his acceptance address for the Republican nomination and called for “certain acts of goodness”:

“It means helping a child from an unhappy home learn how to read…It means, it means, teaching troubled children through your present that there’s no such, that there's such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it's soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well I am moved. I want a kinder, and gentler nation.” 

Were we all listening? Have some of us turned up the dial from “soft” to excruciatingly rigorous?

No Child Left Behind, unless they fail the test

On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law and offered advice to parents: “We know that every child can learn. Now is the time to ensure that every child does learn.” No Child Left Behind required annual testing of reading and math beginning in third grade. The law focused on reading achievement because results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, showed that only 32 percent of the nation’s fourth graders performed at or above the proficient reading achievement level. The law declared that by the 2013-2014 school year, all children should be at the proficient level on state testing.

Our nations’ public schools responded. Schools that fell short of meeting new benchmarks were punished. By 2006 the Center on Education Policy found that 71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had increased time spent on test preparation, reading, and math, and reduced the hours of instructional time spent on art, history, music and other subjects. No one asked third graders what they thought of the situation. 

Two years before, on September 23, 1999, the Honorable Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida, addressed the House Committee on the Budget in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., with a speech entitled “An A+ Plan for Education.” The first element in the A+ plan was “Assess annual student learning against high standards.” That section outlined a blueprint to combat social promotion: “First, in order to more accurately assess student learning and to better determine how well Florida’s students were achieving the learning benchmarks set forth in the Sunshine State Standards, we’re expanding the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test so that all third through tenth graders will take it. . .” This plan became F-CAT, and in 2002-2203 the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was launched. Students were tested beginning in third grade and schools were to be assigned a letter grade, A through F, based on F-CAT exam scores.

Today in Florida, third graders who score at the lowest of five levels on F-CAT must be retained, though Florida now has six “good-cause exemptions.” Today, based on Gov. Bush’s model, more states are adopting the “last resort” Florida policy to end social promotion and holding back third graders if they flunk the state test.

In a 10-year assessment by Patricia Mazzei in The Miami Herald, Ms. Mazzei gave both positive and negative outcomes, including that students’ scores on standardized tests have improved and that Florida, now perceived to be a national leader in educational reform, “has been lauded for closing the gap between white and minority students.” She also reported that the state’s graduation rates are close to the bottom in the nation.

The Florida policies have champions and critics in state legislatures and households across America, but I wonder if we should ask the third graders to weigh in. In an interesting report on the controversial policy in the March 28, 2012, issue of Education Week (“More States Retaining 3rd Graders”) author Erik W. Robelen quotes a Florida superintendent who doesn’t oppose holding students back, but disagrees with the retention decision hinging on one test score. Asked about the policy, Doug A. Whittaker, Superintendent of the 16,200-student Charlotte County district, put it succinctly: “After 10 years, I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s good for kids. I don’t care how adults frame it: The people making those decisions forget what it’s like to be 8 years old.”

Superintendent Whittaker may be right. On a visit to a school, I asked a third grader what he thought about testing in third grade and he answered without hesitation: “It’s hell.”

In a future post I’ll discuss why third grade reading is pivotal, what schools can do to achieve success, and how the 2012 All American City Grade Level Reading Award and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading my be coming up with some kinder and gentler solutions.

Follow Gentry on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website and his book Raising Confident Readers.

Reference links to: 

More States Retaining 3rd Graders

10 Years Later by Particia Mazzei The Miami Herald  

Jeb’s A+ Plan


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