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More Arizona students at risk of being held back

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 6:58 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s been three years and the COVID slide continues.

The academic gaps have widened, especially in high poverty districts like Sunnyside, where 81% of students qualify for free or reduced meals.

Superintendent Steve Holmes started the school year concerned about the youngest students, Kindergarteners through third graders, because they generally learn best with in-person instruction.

New research nationwide shows students still haven’t regained the academic ground they lost through the seismic and ongoing pandemic disruptions.

“We are super concerned about our literacy scores right now. I’m concerned that our third graders though, in terms of retention rates, will potentially double than what we’ve seen in the past,” Holmes said.

Stephanie Shay has been teaching 25 years and this is the first year she’s really worried about her third grade class.

She says about half the students are struggling with tests because they’re a year or more behind in reading.

“I taught second grade last year and it was all remote. So as I started this year, I started off with a lot more below grade level readers than I would on any other year that I taught,” Shay said. “A lot of my kids are like between a first and second grade level right now.”

And that’s a huge problem because of a change in Move On When Reading rules this school year. State law makes it mandatory to retain 3rd graders if they’re reading well below grade level.

The state law makes it mandatory to retain third graders if they’re reading well below grade level. It’s a critical turning point, many education experts say, because fourth grade is when students shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” impacting the rest of their academic career.

Holmes says, in past years, the district averaged about 40 to 45% of students at risk of being retained after taking the statewide assessment.

“What we anticipate is that those numbers are probably going to look closer, more to about 80 to 100,” he said.

AZMerit data reveals only 11% of Sunnyside 3rd graders passed the reading test, compared to 27% in 2019.

But this is the percentage to really focus on in terms of how far students have to climb to catch up, the lowest proficiency level.

81% of students tested in that level. It’s a considerable jump, 44 %, from 2019.

It appears Sunnyside is not alone. The stats are similar in two other mid to high poverty districts.

In Tucson Unified, 74% of third graders really struggled to read at grade level, a jump from 52% in 2019. And in Flowing Wells, the district saw a jump from 46 to 68%.

Before this year, few students in Sunnyside have had to repeat third grade after completing summer school.

“When I taught third grade before, I think I had one student that did not pass on and that was it,” Shay said.

But this year is different. The rules have changed.

There are some exemptions, but at-risk students not only have to complete summer school, they now have to take an assessment at the end to show they’ve made enough progress to move forward.

The prospect of a spike in retentions triggered the district to ramp up literacy interventions and services, in class and after-school, to help students get caught up.

Holmes says district measures show progress is being made this year. Data shows a jump from 12 to 33%.

“We’re pushing them to move up to new levels. So they have goals and they know where they’re at as they move along in reading. So they feel very self-conscious if they’re not on grade level,” Shay said.

So the district has it’s fingers crossed, hoping for the best outcome

Districts throughout Arizona have received federal and state funds to tackle the reading slide.

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