by Cathryn Creno)
Third graders will know by late May whether their scores on the reading portion of this year's Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards are too low for promotion to the fourth grade.
Third-grade teachers have scrambled this year to help an estimated 1,500 Arizona students catch up who don't read well enough to be promoted to the fourth grade.
They also are creating programs for those who don't improve enough. Third-grade students who fail this month's reading portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards assessment will have options such as summer-school classes and remedial programs next school year.
The Arizona State Board of Education expects to share the AIMS third-grade reading results with schools and families by late May.
A law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in 2010 requires third-graders who fall far below on the reading portion of this year's test to be held back until they can read at a third-grade level. State law exempts English-language learners and students in reading and language special-education programs.
The law, called Move On When Reading, is a shift in thinking for schools. In 2010, about 5,000 third-graders statewide failed the AIMS reading test, but only about 200 were held back.
Along with the new law, Brewer created a $40 million fund for remedial reading programs for kindergartners through third-graders.
State officials still expect slightly less than 2 percent of Arizona's 84,000 third-graders to fail the AIMS reading test this spring.
The estimate is based on the AIMS scores of last year's third-graders and the results of other standardized tests taken by last year's second-graders.
"We expect the efforts that schools have been making to have an impact, but we don't want to give a false impression," Education Board Director Christine Thompson said. "We want to be conservative in our estimate."
To get their share of the $40 million, school districts and charter schools had to present plans to improve reading programs to the State Board of Education.
Thompson said 85 percent of Arizona school districts and charter schools submitted plans and received approximately $130 for
Of the 15 percent that did not apply, six schools or districts notified the state they would not participate because their enrollments were so small they did not want to do the paperwork. Third-graders in these schools will still be held back if their scores fall far below the standard.every K-3 student.
Thompson said large Valley districts, including Dysart Unified in Surprise and Mesa Public Schools, were among the first to spend the money on new reading programs.
Dysart and Mesa each has halved the number of third-graders at risk of failing, to 40 and 34, respectively.
Adriel Grieshaber, Dysart's K-3 literacy coordinator, said the 40 remaining students are behind for reasons such as missing school because of illness or repeated moves from one school to another.
For a small percentage of students, reading does not come naturally, she said. These students learn best in small groups run by specialists who help them master word recognition, pronunciation, phonics and spelling.
Dysart customized reading for its 2,015 third-graders this year. Students who read above grade level are given independent projects, while those who struggle spend 30 minutes a day in a small group with a reading specialist, in addition to their normal reading class.
On a recent day at Dysart's Sunset Hills Elementary School, third-graders learned the differences between non-fiction and fables, knowledge they will need for the AIMS.
Some students discussed the differences in teacher-led groups of four or six. Others drew Venn diagrams to show the differences and similarities between "The Ant and the Grasshopper," one of Aesop's Fables, and a non-fiction text. Other small groups discussed books without help from a teacher. They had completed their classwork and were reading more advanced-level books on their own.
In a separate room, struggling readers sat in a half-circle around a reading specialist and reviewed the basics: prefixes, suffixes and word pronunciation.
Grieshaber said the idea is to move every student forward.
"We are not satisfied with the kids who are just 'approaching' the standards," she said. "Our programs are set up so that everyone improves."
Beyond the classroom, teachers are handing students books and encouraging them to read for fun. Fun does not always mean fiction, Grieshaber said. Some students like more practical information.
She said one technically-minded third-grader, for instance, was bored with reading until a teacher handed him an HVAC repair manual. His passion for words began when he used them to learn how to take a machine apart and put it back together.
Mesa has similar programs, including one called Walk To Read. During the program, students get up and walk to classrooms with reading activities that fit their skills. Students are tested every three weeks and move to higher-level groups when ready. Mesa also used funds for all-day kindergarten.
Arizona's Move On When Reading is modeled after a Florida law that took effect in 2002. That law, combined with remedial reading programs in Florida schools, reportedly led to dramatic improvement on test scores. Since 2002, more than 30 states have adopted similar laws.
Options on table
The State Board of Education sent letters to Arizona districts and charter schools last month that outline how districts are to deal with third-graders who fall far below on the AIMS.
The board cannot mandate specific remedial curricula, but the letter includes the following instructions:
• Third-graders who do not take the AIMS this spring can still be retained if other tests show the student is not ready for fourth-grade reading.
• Third-graders who attend remedial reading classes during summer school or in online programs can be promoted if additional tests show improvement.
• Parents can request that a district or charter school reassess a decision to hold back a student after the student has taken summer remedial reading classes.
• Third-graders who fall far below in reading and who do not attend summer school or who do not improve enough in summer school will be retained and will take reading from new teachers and receive intensive reading instruction the next school year.
Students' scores on this month's Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards assessment will be grouped into four categories: exceeds the standard; meets the standard; approaches the standard; falls far below the standard.
Students whose scores fall far below will be held back or allowed to take summer classes for additional third-grade instruction and remediation.
Students who attend summer school will be retested. If they are deemed to meet the third-grade reading standard, they will be allowed to attend fourth grade at the start of the next school year. Other students can be promoted after the start of the school year if they show that they have mastered third-grade reading.