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Kansas Gov. Brownback's reading plan gets hearing

By JOHN MILBURN

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal requiring school districts to hold back Kansas third-graders who aren't proficient in reading received mixed reviews Monday during a legislative hearing.

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on the plan, which the Republican governor outlined in his January State of the State address. The proposal includes $10 million in grant money for intervention programs to help third-graders meet state standards in reading.

Brownback policy director Jon Hummell told senators that the proposal addressed one of five goals Brownback outlined when he ran for governor in 2010: improving the quality of education and fourth-grade reading scores.

"The purpose of this legislation is not to retain third graders," Hummell said.

Students would be retained if they didn't meet target scores on assessments during their third-grade year. Certain student demographics would be exempt from the law, including those in special education or who are limited English language speakers. The funding proposal would award grants to 100 schools statewide to implement research-based programs to boost reading skills and improve the readiness of students entering kindergarten.

Critics said any short-term gains in reading achieved by similar initiatives are offset in the long run by the stigma of being held back or the lack of adequate funding to improve early childhood programs.

Marcy Clay, assistant superintendent of Kansas City, Kan., schools said the proposal didn't address the fact that students learn at different levels and paces. She argued that students will need different techniques to get them up to the level they are expected to achieve, such as individual tutoring or diagnosis of their deficiencies.

Clay also said that using one test to determine reading proficiency may not provide an accurate assessment of reading skills and lead to misidentifying students who need to be held back.

"While I support the notion of high expectations for all students, this measure would have significant negative unintended consequences and would not be good for children," Clay said.

However, Trudy Racine of the Kansas Children's Service League, a children's advocacy group, supported Brownback's plan, saying its provisions would help the state do a better job of targeting funding at early learning programs when a child's brain is developing. She said such efforts would be particularly beneficial to children in poverty whose parents lack the resources to provide them a good foundation for learning.

"Low-income children begin school as many as 18 months behind their more affluent peers," Racine said. "Students who are behind in the first grade are likely to remain behind in grade four."

The committee took no action on the measure and it was unclear when legislators would work on the bill and send it to the floor for debate.