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CEDAR FALLS | Third-graders who fail to meet state literacy standards may be held back under new rules being considered by the Iowa State Board of Education. But some experts say that's not the route to go.

Under the proposed rules, parents of a struggling reader in third grade would have the choice of enrolling the pupil in an intensive summer reading program. If the parents refuse summer school, the child would be held back. The board plans to cast a final vote to accept these rules early this year.

"We really aren’t looking at it as being punitive,” said Dave Tilly, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education, "but we really want to get parents to take their child’s literacy development very, very seriously.”

Tilly said that type of literacy intervention is similar to Florida’s model, dubbed “the Florida Formula” under Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. One year later, Florida outperformed national reading scores and has since surpassed Iowa students.

“If you look at Florida’s reading scores now, they’re off the charts,” said Tilly, who worked for the State of Florida during Bush’s reform. “It raised the stakes on teaching and got kids to supercharge their skills, particularly in literacy.”

Iowa reading scores have been stagnant since the 1990s, according to data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, a widely-accepted report card by the U.S. Department of Education.

In 2012, the Legislature passed Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform package that included new guidelines for early literacy intervention. Lawmakers breathed life into the law last session, allocating $8 million so school districts could fund summer reading programs.

Student retention will not be based on one test. The rules require districts offer struggling readers an alternative assessment or review a portfolio of their work before holding them back.

Still, the rules raise a red flag for Sarah Vander Zanden, an assistant professor of literacy education at the University of Northern Iowa. She specializes in literacy assessment, and said while it’s good the rules require multiple assessments, retention - holding students back - is not the answer.

“There’s no research that says that’s positive for learners,” she said. “If one measure is a particular benchmark for all kids … you’re going to harm some.”

She said the best way to meet student needs is to foster teacher knowledge of the reading and writing processes.

“That’s a long-term investment,” she said. “It’s not a quick fix.”

Cedar Heights Elementary School in Cedar Falls is among the 10 percent of Iowa schools piloting a state-funded “universal screening” benchmark required by the law. It’s called FAST, or Formative Assessment System for Teachers, an early-warning system that tracks reading progress of kindergarten through sixth-grade students. Schools can select their own screening tool, but FAST will be provided to districts for free.

Fourth-grade student Jamie McDowell worked through her FAST assessment with Brenna Dabney, one of the parent volunteers trained to give the 10-minute test. Dabney timed McDowell as she read a one-minute story aloud. She followed up with questions to probe whether the student understood what she had read.

McDowell is learning the difference between reading fast and reading fluently.

“Fast is how long it takes you, and fluid is how the words come through your mouth,” said McDowell, adding that reading fluidly is better than getting through a story quickly. “Sometimes I read too fast, and it doesn’t sound right.”

That’s key, said Cedar Heights Principal Jon Wiebers.

“We’re noticing fluency isn’t as strong as we want it to be in our fourth grade,” he said.

The FAST assessment is just one component of what educators call Response to Intervention, a school-wide effort to meet each student's needs by examining their specific data.

“We look at curriculum, instruction and assessment,” Wiebers said. “If we don’t have 80 percent of kids proficient in one of those areas, we restructure that core.”

Rhonda Mascher, a first-grade teacher at Cedar Heights, has taught elementary students for 21 years. She's noticed a shift in literacy education.

"Before, we taught to the middle level of a whole group," she said. "Now we look at kids as individuals. ... I have first graders in here, but I'm teaching second-, third- and fourth-grade reading levels because that's what some kids can handle."

But literacy instruction and curriculum are inconsistent throughout Iowa, according to a statewide survey by the Iowa Reading Research Center created by the 2012 legislation. That’s largely because districts control which materials are taught and how teachers structure their professional development time.

“Teachers should be concerned about building lesson plans and working with kids instead of trying to research" best practices, said Michelle Hosp, the center’s executive director.

The survey found only about 30 percent of pre-K through third-grade teachers have special training to teach reading. That’s an area where legislators could help, Hosp said.

“During the next legislative session, it would be nice to see dollars put into professional training,” she said. “Unless we can train those teachers, I’m afraid we’ll fall back again.”

Rep. Ron Jorgensen, a Republican from Sioux City, said though he supported the bill in 2012, he isn’t aware of any bill in the works to provide additional funding.

“Early literacy reading programs are high on my priority list,” he said. “But nothing’s been decided at this point in time. We’ll have more discussions once we get the governor’s initial budget.”

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