Saturday, August 06, 2005

Held back by TAKS

Parents offered tips to help fifth-graders who repeat grade

07:59 AM CDT on Friday, August 5, 2005

By HERB BOOTH / The Dallas Morning News

When the bell rings for the first day of school, about 10 percent of the state's 280,000-plus sixth-graders won't be there.

They'll still be in fifth grade.

The 2004-05 fifth-graders were the first students to be held back at that grade level because they didn't pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills after three tries. A similar hurdle was placed before these students when they were in third grade, and they'll be in the vanguard again when they're in eighth grade.

Parents need not fear this process, educators say. There are resources available to those whose children have fallen behind or been held back. In addition, educators say, retention actually can help students.

Such high-stakes testing is not unique to Texas. About half the states have instituted some type of must-pass testing, according to the Education Commission of the States. President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law requires standardized tests in reading and math for third through eighth grades.

In Texas, tying the TAKS test to grade promotion grew out of the belief that social promotion – advancing students, regardless of academic progress, to keep them with their peers – is harmful.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman agrees with that theory.

"Of course, we're concerned about the psychological well-being of students who are retained," she said.

"But research has shown that students who are promoted not having the appropriate skills for that grade level are harmed more than those who aren't. They are more likely to drop out."

Ms. Marchman said the agency put out information through its Web site about the requirements and implications if third- or fifth-graders don't pass the TAKS. She said TAKS study guides are available to give students a boost.

In addition, she said, the TEA offered $39 million in competitive grants for the Texas Reading First Initiative in 2004-05 to implement scientifically based reading programs.

Many districts offer parents advice through Web sites, which include tips on how to help their children learn. The National Education Association Web site also is replete with information to help parents.

Navigating Your School: Tips for parents, students, teachers

While reading to younger children is a common suggestion, Jan Bolinsky, a fifth-grade teacher at Brandenburg Intermediate School in Duncanville, said simply reading isn't enough anymore. She said TAKS requires more thinking than that.

"You need to interact with a child when reading," Ms. Bolinsky said. "Ask why the character is doing that in the book. Ask if that's strange or what do you think about that. Teach them to think. They'll have to figure out the answer. You're making them think, and they get a feeling of knowing how to find out."

In an effort to help students who are held back, teachers and administrators are developing systems and using new programs to address their needs. Some use small groups, mentoring or tutoring.

But teachers admit they can't do it all.

"That's changed," Ms. Bolinsky said. "There are so many ways and places to find the answers."

Ms. Bolinsky said her method would make the subject matter "more real" for students.

"I'm going to strive to make learning more practical for these students. Make it something they can relate to, something they can see. You can't just put it out there because the students didn't understand the first time," said Ms. Bolinsky, who was Duncanville's elementary teacher of the year in 2004. "You have to individualize plans to reach these students. You have to be positive, make them feel like they're leaders."

Linda Polk, a fifth-grade teacher at Dallas' J.W. Ray Elementary School, said an individualized plan might increase reading or employ hands-on activities.

"You have to ask the question, 'What worked and what didn't work for this student?' " Ms. Polk said.

Educators have access to the TAKS questions and answers that the retained students missed.

"We can take that and further assess the students to target what they need to learn," said Jane Clevenger, a fifth-grade teacher at Dallas' Leila P. Cowart Elementary School. "Supposedly, we'll have that on the computer this year. What the information allows us to do is set up a profile system for each student."

Regardless of what method, program or instruction teachers employ, they'll be relying heavily on another important component to these students' education: their parents.

"Parental support is a key in reaching not just these students, but all students," Ms. Clevenger said. "They need to be part of a student's individual plan."

Finally, educators said, parents shouldn't be all that alarmed if their children are held back.

Liz Birdwell, director of elementary and intermediate education for Duncanville schools, said most students benefit from being retained.

"It doesn't benefit a child to keep social promotions," Ms. Birdwell said. "That student never catches up. From my experience, there have been very few students who haven't benefited when they've been retained."

Ms. Polk said educators and parents notice retention a lot more than the students.

"I'm not too sure they totally understand it," Ms. Polk said. "They may not know the reality of retention until it happens. They adjust among their new peers just fine."


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