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Kan. officials anticipate retention policy push

Published on -9/29/2012, 1:46 PM

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KANSAS CITY, MO. (AP) -- A national push to have more struggling readers repeat a grade is generating interest in Kansas.

With the 2013 session still months away, Kansas House Education Chairman Steve Huebert already is considering legislation requiring unprepared third-graders to be held back unless their parents sign an opt-out form acknowledging their child is advancing to fourth grade even if they're not ready. Huebert, a Valley Center Republican, also wants the state to commit some of its education money to reading interventions.

Retention policies have been growing in popularity, particularly in Republican-led states. Ending social promotion was one of Jeb Bush's education reforms when he was governor of Florida, and his nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education has been touting the reform package.

The Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that researches education policy, released a report last month showing that 14 states and the District of Columbia now require third-graders to read at a certain level to be promoted to fourth grade.

But opposition comes from groups like the Kansas National Education Association and Kansas Association of School Boards, which point to research showing that although students tend to fare better during the repeated year and the following year, they are at a higher risk of dropping out in subsequent years.

"If retention means just doing the same thing over again, that is not going to be helpful," said Peg Dunlap, director of instructional advocacy at the KNEA. "If the same thing was effective for that child, it probably would have worked the first time around."

Huebert acknowledged previous retention legislation didn't go anywhere. But with conservative candidates beating out moderates in several Republican primary races, he and the education associations think the issue could get more traction this year.

"I believe that there is a possibility of something passing," Huebert said.

Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said Gov. Sam Brownback also has expressed interest in a fourth-grade retention policy.

"He has kind of challenged the state department, challenged educators that if they're not reading on grade level, 'What do we do?"' said DeBacker, who is opposed to mandating retention. "And retention might be an option as they've done in other states."

Brownback has long said that one of his goals is increasing the percentage of fourth-graders reading at grade-level. State data shows about 10 percent of them aren't. But he won't discuss what his legislative agenda would include until closer to the 2013 session, said his spokesman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

"Governor Brownback has had numerous conversations with education officials, literacy experts and others on best practices from around the state and around the nation on innovations that could help our state meet the important goal of improving our children's reading scores," Jones-Sontag said in an email. "The Governor's interest and work in this area will continue until the goal has been achieved."

Although there's been nothing official, members of the Kansas Board of Education have discussed concerns about a retention policy and plan to send a letter to Brownback asking to be included in the discussion as his education agenda develops.

Board of Education Chairman David Dennis, a Wichita Republican, said interventions should focus on younger students.

"You've almost closed the door after the horse has already left," he said of retaining students who are midway through elementary school.

Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, said it would be more appropriate for the state's Board of Education rather than the Legislature to put forward something like a retention policy. But Abrams, himself a former state Board of Education member, acknowledged there is "an interest in seeing that something is done."

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