Braiding Five Critical Concerns for Children: Reading Instruction, Grade Retention, Skill Remediation, Response-to-Intervention, and Chronic Absences

Why Effective Practice Needs to Dictate Good Policy (Rather than the Other Way Around)

Dear Colleague,

There are times in education where we get so focused on the individual trees in our forest, that we are unable to get out of the forest itself.

That is, we sometimes get so singularly focused on a topic, area, or academic discipline that we miss the related issues that are concurrently in play.

And so, it was heartening to read my local newspaper a few weeks ago about a report published by two advocacy groups analyzing our state’s recent data on school attendance (or, more accurately, chronic absenteeism) and its relationship to literacy and student achievement.

Focusing on kindergarten through Grade 3 students across the state (Arkansas) during the 2014-2015 school year, the report’s major findings included:

  • Chronic absence is a significant problem: More than 12% of kindergarten through 3rd graders missed 18 or more days of school (10% of the school year)
  • Chronic absence starts early: Kindergarteners were significantly more likely to be chronically absent than students in third grade (16% vs. 10%).
  • Chronic absence is worse among certain schools: 25% of the state’s chronically absent students were attending just 52 (10%) of the state’s schools.
  • Chronic absence is worse among third graders who are economically disadvantaged or have special needs: These combined groups accounted for more than 30% of the state’s chronically absent 3rd graders.
  • Hispanic students are the least likely to be chronically absent: Only 9% of the state’s chronically absent 3rd graders were Hispanic, compared to 12% of white and 14% of African-American 3rd graders.
  • Chronically absent 3rd graders are less likely to read on grade level: Only 20% of 3rd graders who were chronically absent were reading on grade level.

Parenthetically, it is critical to note that the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires every state, district, and school to report its annual chronic absenteeism rates (including both excused and unexcused absences).

Relating these Results to Recent National Reports

The results from this state-specific report summarized above are comparable to similar national reports. But some additional processes need to be considered when discussing students’ reading success, and why so many of our students are not learning how to read.

These processes include:

Reading Instruction, Retention Decisions, Remedial Practices, Response-to-Intervention, and Chronic Absences.

Critically, these processes have been investigated in a number of recent national reports.

Report 1: Reading Instruction. In May 2015, the International Literacy Association released its Preliminary Report on Teacher Preparation for Literacy Instruction.

Gathering information on the literacy requirements for teacher certification or licensure by state departments of education across the country, the Report concluded that many newly-certified elementary teachers are unprepared to teach reading.

Indeed, the Report noted that (a) up to 34 states have no specific professional teaching standards in reading for elementary teachers; (b) up to 24 states have no literacy or reading course requirements; (c) many states have no practicum or internship requirements for literacy practice and supervision; and (d) many states do not require a test to assess competency in reading instruction for teacher-licensure candidates.

Implications. If elementary school teachers (especially) are untrained in critical literacy instruction, progress monitoring, and intervention processes when they enter the field, why would we expect them to deliver effective instruction from Day 1 of their teaching careers?

Moreover, how many “Instructional Casualties” result from this gap? That is, students who are not learning how to successfully read in a timely way due to poor, ineffective, or the absence of good instruction?

Report 2: Retention Research, Results, and Unintended Effects. Unfortunately, the educational process of teaching students to read has become confounded by potentially harmful policies that require (by state law) or recommend (by at least one national “advocacy” group) that students be retained at the end of 3rd grade if they are not reading “at grade level.”

This is problematic because of:

  • The absence of any empirical research validating the importance of 3rd grade as the “pivotal year” for reading mastery or grade-level retention
  • The research on the effectiveness—and the unintended consequences—of grade retention
  • The absence of diagnostic assessment and strategic intervention before and during most retention years
  • The inappropriate use of retention as an “intervention” in and of itself

Reinforcing the points above: While I understand that most reading curricula (supported by state and national standards) shift their focus during the 3rd grade year from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” why has the end of 3rd grade has become the focal point for retention policies and decisions?

Recognizing that many students from poverty enter school thousands of receptive and expressive vocabulary words behind, and that all students learn academic skills at different rates, what if we moved the decision point—when students should have mastered their decoding and basic fluency skills—to the end of 4th grade?

If we did this, we would (a) give “struggling” students (and teachers) more time and opportunity to master (and teach) essential literacy skills; (b) allow needed interventions (e.g., to close the vocabulary or readiness gaps) to work more completely; and (c) decrease or eliminate the “failure” messages received—implicitly or explicitly—by students who are not producing “grade-level” results.

This recommendation is not meant to delay critical educational decisions for students who are not making grade-level progress in reading. In fact, it is meant to introduce a more situationally- and developmentally-sound perspective to teaching in this area, and to allow instruction and early intervention to succeed.

Moreover, implicit in this recommendation is the importance of providing enriched instruction to advanced or “above grade level” students who have exceeded or mastered their current (3rd grade) literacy skills.

Beyond this, and unfortunately, most schools use grade retention as its own discreet intervention. That is, (a) regardless of where the student is functioning, and (b) rather than diagnostically analyzing and then strategically addressing the student’s specific literacy weaknesses or deficiencies, many schools (c) simply let the student begin the retention year at the beginning of that year’s curriculum.

That is, if a retained student finishes his or her 3rd grade year reading at the 2.3 grade level, s/he still begins the repeated 3rd grade year—with all of his/her peers—being taught reading at the beginning of 3rd grade level.

With all the talk about (and the challenges with) differentiation, many schools are differentiating instruction in name, but not in function.

The Research on Grade Retention. Past research has shown few, if any, long-term student benefits due to grade retention, and some important unintended, negative outcomes have been reported.

Among the typical results:

  • Retention is academically not helpful at all grades, including kindergarten
  • Retention occurs more often when students change schools while transitioning into Grade 1, Middle School, and High School
  • While there may be an initial achievement “bump,” these initial positive effects tend to diminish over time
  • Most schools do not provide specific, additional interventions during the retention year
  • Some decision-making teams use data selectively to support their preferences for or against retention
  • A single retention almost doubles a student’s potential for eventually dropping out of school, while two retentions almost guarantee this
  • There is a negative correlation between retention and race, gender, SES, and school outcomes

Beyond this, John Hattie has conducted over 800 meta-analyses involving 50,000 studies and more than 200 million students over the past 15 years. Focusing on factors that influence students’ achievement, he has determined that grade retention ranks 136 of the 138 factors that he has investigated.

According to Hattie: “The overall effects from retention are among the lowest of all educational interventions. It can be vividly noted that retention is overwhelmingly disastrous. The effects of retention, based on 861 studies was -0.15—a decline in achievement of .15 standard deviations on achievement tests when a child is retained.”

Relative to unintended effects, a recent Duke study (February, 2014) documented an interdependent “ripple effect” where the middle schools in North Carolina that had more students who had previously been retained had more students who were suspended, had substance abuse problems, and engaged in more fights and classroom disruptions.

Involving more than 79,000 students in these NC middle schools, this study looked not only at the students who had been retained, but how their presence in a school influenced their classmates.

More specifically, if 20% of the 7th graders in a middle school were older than their peers, the probability that other students in the school would commit an infraction or be suspended increased by 200%- - controlling for SES and parents’ level of education. While these discipline increases occurred for all student subgroups, they were more pronounced among white students and girls of all races.

The Duke study particularly noted North Carolina’s Read to Achieve policy whereby 3rd grade students not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are retained if interventions and summer reading camp experiences have not brought them up to a 4th grade readiness level.

While the Duke study does not say that these students should not be retained, it does note that the widespread practice of retaining students can have negative effects on student behavior and school climate later on at the middle school level.

Implications. I am personally not against grade retention. But when it occurs, it should be:

  • Recommended using a data-based, functional assessment process where. . .
  • Specific strategic instructional or intervention approaches—in the student’s area(s) of weakness—are planfully integrated into the retention year and process. . . where
  • Students continue to receive instruction at their skill or instructional level in their areas of grade-level or above strength (so that they can continue to progress in these areas). . . and
  • Where all of the instructional and intervention strategies and approaches are progressively evaluated on their ability to help the student learn, master, and apply targeted skills.

Moreover, as noted above: Retention is NOT an intervention.

While another year with a student at the same grade level presents an opportunity for the student to receive the right instructional or intervention approaches to help him or her succeed. . . if that year will not substantially benefit the student, then (regardless of policy) it should not be required.

Critically, we cannot predict the potential benefits of a retention year until we fully understand the underlying reasons that explain a student’s lack of academic progress.

For more and previous thoughts on these topics:

past Blog on When Kids Can’t Read: Policy and Practice Mistakes that Make it Worse

past Blog on Grade Retention is NOT an Intervention: How WE Fail Students when THEY are Failing in School

Report 3: Remedial Practices and Response-to-Intervention. Two additional areas that are directly related to students’ literacy proficiency involve what schools do when they are not learning and mastering. Effectively addressing these areas (remedial practices and response-to-intervention) is critical—especially given an important report that suggests that current practices need to be rethought.

In November 2015, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and completed by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading, was published.

This Report described the largest federal investigation of its kind—a differential evaluation of the effects of response-to-intervention approaches on the literacy progress of approximately 24,000 first through third grade students in 13 states. Critically, the study statistically compared 146 schools, that had been implementing key elements from the U.S. Department of Education’s Response-to-Intervention (RtI) framework in literacy for at least three years, with 100 randomly-selected comparison schools that were not implementing RtI in the same 13 states.

More specifically, the study compared the literacy progress of 1st through 3rd grade students during the 2011 to 2012 school year primarily using individually-administered norm-referenced tests and their state’s high-stakes proficiency test.

The students in the 146 “RtI Schools” qualified for RtI Tier II interventions, and the students in the 100 “Comparison Schools” barely made or just missed the cut-offs for Tier II intervention—all based on a Fall screening test (the DIBELS or AIMS were clearly the most-used screeners).

The Results? Based on Fall to Winter interventions and assessments:

  • The 1st graders receiving Tier II interventions performed 11% lower on the reading assessments than the comparison students who barely missed qualifying for the Tier II intervention approaches.
  • The 2nd and 3rd graders receiving Tier II interventions experienced no significant reading benefits- - although they did not lose ground.
  • At Grade 1, only four of the 119 schools studied found data-based benefits for their Tier II students, while 15 schools had negative effects for their Tier II students. [100 schools showed no benefits for all of the staff and student time—and resources—expended.]
  • At Grade 1, 86% of students who began in Tier I remained in Tier I; 50% of the students who began in Tier II remained there; and 65% of the students in Tier III remained. Across the Grade 1 student sample, 13% of the students moved to a more intensive Tier, and 14% moved to a less intensive Tier. [The percentages of students moving were smaller in Grade 2 and Grade 3.]
  • Students already receiving special education services or who were “old for grade” (probably due to delayed entrances or retentions) had particularly poor results when they received Tier II interventions.
  • For all students, the reading results did not significantly differ for students from different income levels, racial groups, or native languages.

Among the assessment and intervention results from the Study:

  • 79% of the schools for the Grade 1 students, 75% of the schools for Grade 2, and 80% of the schools for Grade 3 used only ONE screening test when placing their students in Tier II interventions in the Fall.
  • Between 31% (Grade 3) and 38% (Grade 1) of the students in the study were placed into Tier II or III interventions using no other information but the screening test.
  • The “interventions” tracked by the RtI Report were simply small-group instruction or one-on-one tutoring.

While the schools were surveyed on the focus of the interventions (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, or reading comprehension), the Report did not identify or track the specific skill-based interventions received by the students.

  • Finally, for the Below Grade Level students in intervention groups, 37% of them in Grade 1, 28% in Grade 2, and 22% in Grade 3 received their interventions from paraprofessionals- - not certified teachers or reading or other specialists.

Implications. Significantly, the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) does not mention response-to-intervention anywhere in the law, and it only references multi-tiered systems of support five times (always in lower case terms, and never using the U.S. Department of Education’s MTSS acronym).

With its focus on having states and districts develop their own effective instruction and intervention programs, the law—in essence—is telling districts and schools to abandon past ineffective practices and to design new effective ones.

This makes good sense as the federal government’s past RtI framework (as demonstrated in the above study) always had many critical flaws—flaws that violated numerous psychometric and psychoeducation principles of sound practice.

These flaws:

  • Delayed services to students,
  • Resulted in the wrong interventions being implemented, and
  • Added to, increased, or made some students’ academic problems more resistant to change.

These issues have been discussed in a previous Blog and an extensive Technical Assistance paper:

Your State’s Guide to RtI: Some Statutes Just Don’t Make Sense (What your Department of Education isn’t Sharing about its Multi-tiered/Response-to-Intervention Procedures)

The “bottom line” is that we can and must do better.

Report 4: Chronic Absenteeism—Coming Full Circle. On June 7th of this year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a report, A First Look: Key Highlights on Equity and Opportunity Gaps in Our Nation’s Public Schools.

On June 7th of this year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a report, A First Look: Key Highlights on Equity and Opportunity Gaps in Our Nation’s Public Schools.

This Report, which provides a national context for the state data discussed at the beginning of this Blog, summarizes the 2013-2014 school-year survey results from virtually every school district in the country (involving over 50 million students)—reporting on a host of issues: school discipline, restraints and seclusions, early learning, college and career readiness, education in juvenile justice facilities, teacher and staffing equity, and . . . chronic student absences.

In the latter area, the First Look report defined a chronically absent student as one missing 15 or more school days during the school year. The Report cited the following national data from the 2013-2014 school year:

  • Nationwide, more than 6.5 million students – or 13% of all students – were chronically absent. 19% of all high school students, 12% of middle school students, and 10% of elementary school students were chronically absent.
  • In nearly 500 school districts, at least 30% of their students missed at least three weeks of school.
  • More than 3 million high school students – or 18% of all high school students – were chronically absent.
  • 20% or more of American Indian or Alaska Native (26%), Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (25%), black (22%), multiracial (21%), and Latino (20%) high school students were chronically absent.
  • High school students with disabilities served by IDEA were 1.3 times as likely to be chronically absent as high school students without disabilities.
  • 20% of all English learner high school students were chronically absent.
  • At the elementary school level, the following data were reported:
  • More than 3.5 million elementary school students – or 11% of all elementary school students – were chronically absent.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander elementary school students were twice as likely to be chronically absent as white elementary school students.
  • Black elementary school students were 1.4 times as likely to be chronically absent as white elementary school students.
  • Elementary school students with disabilities served by IDEA are 1.5 times as likely to be chronically absent as elementary school students without disabilities.

Implications. Critically, among the most-concerning long-term effects of chronic student absences are (a) poor academic progress—especially in reading, and (b) the high potential for dropping out of high school.

Thus, if we can determine and successfully change the underlying reasons why these students are absent, schools may then find effective ways to help these students to academically “catch up” and recalibrate their school success.

This topic was extensively explored in a recent Blog:

How to Improve your Chronically Absent Students’ Attendance. . . During the Summer Break


While this discussion began (and ended) with the effects of chronic absenteeism on elementary students’ proficiency in literacy, the theme throughout was:

Students’ literacy success, as well as their literacy gaps or “failures,” occur due to many interdependent direct and indirect in-school and out-of-school variables and circumstances.

From a policy perspective, it is short-sighted to focus on an individual variable, or a single circumstance. Instead, we need to look at the many effective multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, and practices that help students to succeed in reading, and craft our policies accordingly.

In other words, we need more specific, bottom-up approaches here, than global, top-down proclamations.

And, among the approaches that we need to focus on are:

  • Getting kids to school (i.e., decreasing chronic and other absences) ready and motivated to learn
  • Preparing and certifying our teachers as effective, scientifically-based reading instructors
  • Tracking and monitoring our students’ skill mastery and reading proficiency
  • Providing instructional or intervention services and supports— based on diagnostic assessments and at needed levels of intensity—to struggling students

In doing this, we need to also review, re-evaluate, and reject policies (e.g., retention), procedures (e.g., response-to-intervention), and other practices that are not working—or that are producing unintended negative effects.

Admittedly, this is all very messy at times. But, it is all very necessary at all times.

I hope that your district and schools have looked at the opportunities—embedded in the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act—to rethink and redesign our educational practices. . . in reading, math, behavior, school climate, and student engagement. There is much to do before the entire law is implemented (July 1, 2017), and the stakes are high. We must do better.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Know that I spend over 150 days per year partnering with schools and districts—helping them to build effective, sustainable, multi-tiered approaches that positively impact students’ academic and social, emotional, behavioral skills and outcomes.

As such, these Blog messages are not hypothetical to me. . . they are based on experience and a focus on real schools, challenged staff, and struggling students.

Feel free to contact me at any time, and remember to look at my website for the many free resources that are available there.

Let me know how I can help you further. Feel free to forward this Blog link to your colleagues.