ST. LOUIS • Each year, around 2,000 children in the city’s public elementary and middle schools receive the worst score possible on state reading exams.
And yet, just 134 students in grades three through eight were held back this year, according to state data.
It’s a fact that was pointed out to St. Louis Public Schools officials in a stinging state audit of the district last month. Now city school officials are taking steps to better comply with two largely ignored state laws that prohibit children who lack adequate reading skills from advancing to the next grade.
In the next few weeks, parents of city school children are to receive notice if their child is reading more than one grade level behind. For the first time this fall, the district is giving a standard reading assessment to middle and elementary schools to determine where their skills stand. Those not reading adequately will receive reading improvement plans that may include tutoring, small group instruction and summer school. Parents will be asked to sign off on those plans.
Children whose reading skills don’t improve enough by the end of the school year could face repeating the same grade next fall, potentially leading to hundreds — if not thousands — of additional students being retained.
“The district is assuring that the policy of the district approved two years ago is fully implemented,” Superintendent Kelvin Adams said, referring to a policy that spells out what children at each grade level must master before advancing. “Will that result in more kids being held back? The answer may be yes.”
Adams would not speculate on how many students may be retained as a result. “I frankly, honestly, don’t have any clue right now. ”
The city public school system is among many that fail to fully comply with state’s promotion and retention laws.
One of those laws applies only to St. Louis Public Schools and requires the district to hold back any student whose reading level is more than one year behind. The other applies to all schools statewide and prohibits fourth-graders from advancing to fifth grade if they are reading below a third-grade level.
Exam results from the 2013 Missouri Assessment Program show that 5,437 fourth-graders across Missouri — about 8 percent of them — scored the lowest possible level of “below basic” in the reading section last spring. Yet only 224 fourth-graders statewide were held back this year, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In the St. Louis area, 1,897 fourth-graders scored below basic on the state’s reading exam. Yet just 60 were forced to repeat fourth grade this fall, according to state retention data. No students at any grade level were held back at 274 area schools.
Those schools include four of the five elementary schools in the unaccredited Normandy School District, and at two of the nine elementary schools in the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District, where the vast majority of students are behind in reading.
In St. Louis, no students were retained at 18 of the district’s 46 elementary schools. At three of the city elementary schools with no retained students — Dunbar, Monroe and Walbridge elementary schools — half or more students tested below basic last spring in reading.
It’s a reality that angers state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who believes schools that pass children without adequate reading skills are setting them up for life as an illiterate adult.
At a legislative hearing in Jefferson City, Nasheed was close to yelling as she grilled Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro about why the department wasn’t pressuring schools to end so-called social promotion.
“So are we really serious about educating our kids when you can let a kid go from one grade level to the next knowing they’re not fit for the next level? Knowing that we’re setting them up for failure?” Nasheed said. “If we’re not educating them, we’re going to incarcerate them.”
But studies are mixed as to whether retaining children actually helps them in the long run. Dozens of reports spanning two decades indicate that students who are held back in middle school are more likely to drop out of high school. Other studies suggest students who repeat a lower grade perform much better academically for a few years, but their gains are often lost over time.
“Grade retention tends to be traumatic for kids,” said Lars Lefgren, an economics professor at Brigham Young University who has studied the impact of retention on students in the Chicago school system. “You have to trade off your education objective against the trauma kids face.”
It’s why Nicastro says she’s not entirely sold on holding back struggling readers as the means to help them catch up.
“The whole notion of social promotion is a very complex one,” Nicastro said last month during a meeting in St. Louis. “What that means is we have to think differently about how we help children succeed.”
In St. Louis, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich last month blasted St. Louis Public Schools on several counts, such as not doing enough to prevent standardized test fraud, failing to monitor the hundreds of programs in its schools, and not doing enough to bring in competitive bids for services.
But he said it was the findings on promoting inadequate readers to the next grade level that troubled him the most.
District officials responded by saying that the city school system does not have the resources to retain all students not reading at the required level, and fully following the law would hurt the district financially.
The cost of holding back one student in St. Louis Public Schools is $14,375.
Despite the expense, Adams said the district is taking steps to fully comply with Schweich’s audit recommendations, including student retention. But Adams maintains that holding children back isn’t enough to help struggling readers, and in some cases it could make the problem worse if the right kind of tutoring and other interventions aren’t provided.
Members of the district’s Special Administrative Board last week cautioned Adams to consider any unintended consequence. Adams assured that the district would be doing everything possible to make parents aware if their children could face the potential of repeating a grade next year.
“I just don’t want to see us here next May hearing from parents that they are surprised their child isn’t being passed,” board president Rick Sullivan said.
Board member Richard Gaines said the notion of social promotion isn’t acceptable. But there are things to be considered that aren’t always obvious, he said, when holding a child back. “We want to move these kids along so socially they are not out of balance,” he said. “It needs to be seriously discussed how you do this.”
Adams later said it’s why the issue is a complicated one. But nevertheless, he expects Schweich to be pleased when the auditor returns to St. Louis in December for a follow-up report.
“The lawmakers have the best intentions about what they’re enacting,” Adams said. “It’s up to us to make sure we can follow it to the degree it doesn’t hurt kids. The intent of the law is to make sure kids can read.”
Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.