Will old school flunking pass new muster?

Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog

When the public complains about schools one common gripe is “Johnny can’t read.”

Maybe he can, maybe he can’t but know this, “Johnny can’t flunk”—not easily, not in Nebraska’s largest school district.

An investigation by Nebraska Watchdog has discovered that two years ago out of 3,347 seventh-graders in Omaha Public Schools one flunked: that’s right one.

That same year one fifth-grader flunked—one out of 3,719 fellow fifth-graders.

Ten years ago seven OPS fifth-graders flunked, as did 55 seventh-graders.

Yes, according to figures obtained exclusively by Nebraska Watchdog through the state public records law, flunking is old school.

Last year, out of some 35,000 OPS students from kindergarten through eighth grade 140 flunked. That’s 0.4 percent or 0.004.

The numbers may well add fuel to a fiery debate over one state lawmaker’s plan to end “social promotion” and reinstate flunking—specifically third-graders with severe reading problems.

“We are doing (students) harm by passing them along without requisite reading skills,” says State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh.

The northwest Omaha senator’s plan would require schools to offer “accelerated reading intervention programs” for students from kindergarten through third grade who are struggling to read.

But flunking has more than its share of critics.

“Retention is not a good strategy,” Carla Noerrlinger, OPS Executive Director for Research, tells Nebraska Watchdog.

Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford, has fought flunking for years.

“Students who are held back actually do worse in the long run than comparable students who are promoted,” she wrote in 1998.

But Lautenbaugh worries that third-graders who don’t read at grade level won’t catch-up if they aren’t held back.

According to the Nebraska Department of Education’s numbers many OPS third-graders have plenty of catching-up to do.

For the 2012-2013 school year 38 percent of OPS third-graders —down from 46 percent in 2009-2010—did not meet the state’s reading standards.

That means out of nearly 4,000 third-graders 1,500 came up short on reading proficiency.

How many of those third-graders flunked? Six.

But the numbers don’t say which ones. Maybe it was those with reading problems, maybe not.

Would Lautenbaugh have flunked all 1,500 poor readers?

Well he tells Nebraska Watchdog his plan—which is backed by nine other lawmakers and is the subject of a public hearing Tuesday —calls for a “minimally acceptable test score.”

According to the bill students with reading problems will be examined “no fewer” than three times a year and again only third-graders are targeted for flunking.

“I had not contemplated looking at 4th, 5th and 6th grades because the goal is to make sure any deficiency in reading is addressed before they get there, so they can perform when they get to these upper grades,” said Lautenbaugh.

OPS’ new superintendent, Mark Evans, tells Nebraska Watchdog reading tests alone don’t pass muster.

“It’s not a conversation we have had at the school board table yet — but, historically, research indicates that utilizing one data point is not the most effective method of addressing reading problems,” says Evans.

In addition Evans says if flunking is needed third grade is probably too late.

“Retention is best done at the kindergarten or first-grade level and based on multiple data points, including social/emotional, physical, parental input, and student achievement.”

As for those OPS seventh-graders from two years ago—remember only one flunked— 37 percent did not meet the state’s reading requirements.

Contact Joe Jordan at joe@nebraskawatchdog.org and listen to Joe every Monday morning at 7:40 on KFAB radio in Omaha.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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