Soon-to-be third-graders huddled around a teacher at Bradley Elementary School and identified the nuances in the twists and turns behind “The Case of the Cat’s Meow.”
At North Springs Elementary, rising third-graders typed on laptops, their completed writings hanging nearby on the wall. At the end of summer camp, they will pick the piece they are most proud of to be framed for presentation to their parents.
The scenes from summer reading camps Tuesday in Richland 1 and Richland 2 were a far cry from the romping and merrymaking some Midlands students are experiencing this summer. But they serve an important purpose, educators say, preparing the rising third-graders for a new – and arguably the most consequential – challenge of their school careers.
Starting this school year, S.C. third-graders struggling the most to read on their grade level could be held back a year to repeat the grade, according to a new state law.
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The change could affect 1 in 20 third-graders locally and statewide.
Based on recent test scores, more than 3,200 third-graders statewide and 500 in the Midlands could find themselves repeating the third grade. The Midlands numbers included as many as 15 percent of the third-graders tested in the Lexington 4 school district, and as few as 4 percent of the third-graders in the Lexington 1 and Lexington-Richland 5 school districts.
“It’s a huge responsibility for everyone,” said Quantina Haggwood, early childhood director of learning and instruction in Richland 1, where 7 percent of third-graders tested last year scored low enough to repeat the year had the new law been in effect.
“I want our children to be successful.”
Law focuses on reading
Driving the new reading challenge is a 2014 S.C. law aimed at sharpening the state’s focus on teaching reading in its public schools.
Since the law was passed, the state has spent $164 million on reading coaches and summer reading camps for struggling readers, which state law requires every district to provide.
Under the new state law, educators must get training in how to teach reading as part of their certification. School districts also had to spell out how they would teach reading.
Districts also are testing students’ reading abilities before they reach third grade and doing so more often than before the law passed.
The state pays for more than 650 reading coaches, who work in every elementary school in the state. Those coaches work with teachers to analyze test results to pinpoint the reading skills each child needs help with. The coaches also model lessons and strategies for teaching those skills.
Interventions with struggling readers should be happening all year long in every elementary school classroom across the state, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said.
“Schools aren’t waiting to do this just in third grade,” she said.
“If (children) are not ready in kindergarten, then there should be remediation right away. We’re doing a much better job of that (identifying struggling readers early on) than before we passed this law.”
Bracing for change
S.C. educators and child advocates are waiting to see the impact of the state’s new reading law next spring.
The new state law is a departure from current practice about holding students back. Previously, decisions to have children repeat a grade are made on a case-by-case basis after principals, teachers, parents and counselors talk.
However, in 2014, S.C. lawmakers – modeling their law after a similar one in Florida – decided that, starting next spring, third-graders failing to read on grade level would be held back, the most extreme intervention. Third grade was targeted because that is the year students start using reading to learn across all subjects, instead of learning to read as an end unto itself.
Third grade also is pivotal because, research shows, struggling third-grade readers are more likely not to graduate on time or at all.
South Carolina’s law could have negative consequences if children are held back who have not had access to quality reading instruction.
“You have to think, if they’re retained this one year, what’s going to be different for them the second year around?” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the S.C. Association of School Psychologists.
“Will students receive the same instruction that failed them the first time?”
Is the law tough enough?
Other education advocates wonder whether the law goes far enough.
Only the third-graders who are struggling the most with reading will be in danger of being held back next spring. Other struggling readers – some doing only slightly better but not reading on grade level – will advance to the fourth grade.
Last year, 44 percent of S.C. third-graders passed a statewide reading test. Another 34 percent approached expectations. But 22 percent did not meet expectations at all, scoring the lowest on the test.
About 5 percent of all third-graders who took the test would have been targeted for repeating the grade had the new state law been in effect. That 5 percent only makes up the students who scored the lowest of the students who did not meet expectations.
Exemptions for children with disabilities or those learning English will lower further the number of students recommended for repeating a grade.
The purpose of the law was not to punish students by holding them back, but to get children reading on their grade level, said S.C. Education Oversight Committee director Melanie Barton.
Barton said she wonders if the state should consider raising the cutoff for scores that trigger repeating a grade.
The future academic success of the students who do not meet expectations but who do not score low enough to be held back will be “highly questionable,” she said.
Long term, part of the solution, Barton said, is for the state to focus more on ensuring children are starting kindergarten with the skills needed to learn.
“The issue starts from the time they’re born,” she said. “That’s where we’ve really got to put our emphasis now – in the future, before they even get to the public schools.”
Camps a last resort for some
The summer reading camps are intended as an intervention of last resort for third-graders who finish the year behind on reading, said Spearman, the state education superintendent. If those struggling third-grade readers show improvement after completing summer camp, they can avoid being held back.
School districts also have opened up the summer camps to students who are struggling readers, a broader swath of children than just those who are in danger of repeating a grade. The goal is to help all struggling readers, not just those who most need improvement.
Getting kids to the reading camps is also a challenge.
Of the 8,609 students enrolled in summer reading camps across the state last summer, 4,616 were third-graders. However, almost twice that number of third-graders – 8,229 – were eligible for the camps, according to an Education Department report.
A key to raising attendance is to make the reading camps fun, said Spearman, adding schools need to offer activities similar to traditional summer camps.
That’s the strategy in Richland 1 and 2, educators in those districts say.
In Richland 1, where about 800 first- through fifth-graders attended summer reading camps at nine of its 28 elementary schools, activities included traditional summer camp themes, including singing around a make-believe campfire.
Students also did science and math activities, and joined clubs for cooking, Legos and more, said Haggwood, the early childhood director. “Field Trip Fridays” took children to a science museum in Charlotte, the aquarium in Myrtle Beach and Riverbanks Zoo.
“We didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is still summer and students need to have some fun while learning,” Haggwood said.
‘Working ... to get there’
Spearman said she expects that parents, students and teachers will have some anxiety about the challenge third-graders face this school year as part of the 2014 law, “one of the most important passed in South Carolina in a long time.”
Improvements in reading instruction across the state over the past few years should help ease fears, she said.
Results from the latest statewide testing, conducted last spring, will be released later this year.
“I fully anticipate that our children are doing better in reading, and we’re going to have a small number of children who are going to be retained,” Spearman said. “Are we there totally? No. But we are working ... to get there.”
She added: “Does retention really change things? Retention in itself does not. However, retention with very, very strong supports for the students can work.”
Is SC reading to succeed?
At the end of the 2017-18 school year, S.C. third-graders scoring the lowest on a statewide reading test could face repeating the year. Here’s a look at how many students the law could affect in Midlands districts, based on 2016 scores, including the number of students tested, and the number and percentage of students who scored low enough to be targeted for repeating the grade:
Percent with lowest scores
By the numbers:
South Carolina third-graders are heading toward a tough reading challenge next year:
3,215 – S.C. third-graders who scored low enough in 2016 to repeat the grade, roughly 5 percent of nearly 60,000 third-graders
519 – Third-graders in eight Midlands districts who scored low enough to repeat the grade
8,229 – S.C. third-graders recommended to attend summer reading camps in 2016
4,616 – S.C. third-graders who attended summer reading camps in 2016
$164 million – State spending on summer reading camps and reading coaches since the 2014 reading law passed
653 – Reading coaches paid for by the state to serve every S.C. elementary school. Some districts spent more to hire additional coaches.