Student and school accountability reforms proposed

Only proficient readers would advance from third to fourth grade under a bill heard by the Education Committee Jan. 28.

Under LB952, introduced by Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, third-grade students who fail to be proficient in state and local reading assessments would be held back until proficiency is attained. Schools would be required to provide intensive summer programs and supplemental reading opportunities to all students in kindergarten through third grade to help keep students on track for promotion.

Lautenbaugh said the bill is modeled after education reforms that have been successful in other states.

“One of the goals of this bill is to try to address problems early on so that by third grade, students have reached a level of proficiency that allows students to achieve success in other areas,” he said. “We can do better and this bill establishes a framework to meet some of these goals.”

Bob Evnen of Lincoln spoke in support of requiring reading proficiency before automatically advancing students from the third grade.

“What we communicate to the child in a social promotion is that we’re giving up on them,” Evnen said. “Addressing this now is, without a doubt, in the best interests of the child.”

The bill also would require the state Department of Education to develop a model for grading the quality and progress of individual schools. A school’s grade would be based on a combination of:
• student achievement scores on the statewide assessment for all students enrolled in the school;
• student learning gains for all students enrolled in the school as measured by the statewide assessment; and
• student learning gains of the students enrolled in the school scoring in the lowest 25th percentile in reading and mathematics on the statewide assessment.

Schools that maintain an “A” grade or see improvement by a grade level would be eligible for a monetary reward that could be used for nonrecurring bonuses for faculty and staff or for special equipment geared toward increasing student performance.

The department also would be authorized to issue teaching certificates to qualified candidates who have not graduated from an accredited state teacher education program if they have:
• qualified by examination and college credits;
• hold a valid doctoral degree from a properly accredited institution; or
• hold a valid teaching certificate from another state or a national accreditation board.

A final provision in the bill would require written approval of teacher transfers from the principal of the school to which the teacher is wishing to transfer.

Gina Miller, whose children are students in the Omaha Public School district, opposed the bill. She said there needs to be more local control and parental involvement in education reform.

“We need to stop legislating, testing and measuring our children’s educations to death,” Miller said. “There is less and less time for children to engage in true learning activities. These decisions should be made by local school boards, which understand the issues unique to their students.”

State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt opposed the bill on behalf of the state Board of Education, saying that it proposes worthy concepts, but that it would force the state to diverge from its current plan to address student learning goals.

“I believe that we ought to be informing ourselves and the public with the data we have in place as a communication to the public about how well our schools are working,” Blomstedt testified. “If they aren’t reading by grade three, that is their opportunity to be reading to learn. If we miss that opportunity with students, we have actually impacted their lives.”

Jay Sears, representing the Nebraska State Education Association, also opposed the bill as currently drafted, saying that it is important to acknowledge that not all students come to school ready to learn and that they progress at different rates.

“We appreciate that Sen. Lautenbaugh sought our input on this bill,” he said. “We support extended learning opportunities for students. However, we believe there are more unintended consequences in retaining students than there are benefits to learning.”

Representing Voices for Children, Aubrey Mancuso provided neutral testimony. She said the goals of the bill are admirable, but automatic retention is misguided.

“We support the overall goal of addressing the issue of grade-level reading,” she said. “However, holding children back in the third grade isn’t effective and can have damaging consequences, including behavioral problems and an increase in disruptive classroom dynamics.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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