HB 12-1238 Ensuring K-3 Literacy Education
House Bill 12-1238
Testimony to the House Education Committee
Frank Waterous, Senior Policy Analyst
March 12, 2012
My name is Frank Waterous, and I am senior policy analyst with the Bell Policy Center. The Bell is a non-partisan, non-profit research and policy organization founded on progressive values and dedicated to expanding opportunity for all Coloradans.
The Bell Policy Center would very much like to fully support House Bill 12-1238, "Ensuring K-3 Literacy Education," but is unable to do so at this time without some simple but important amendments. While the bill addresses a pressing problem in Colorado's education system, its emphasis on recommending that our lowest performing students not advance to the next grade level – that is, what the literature refers to as student retention – is a serious concern to us. Simply put, the research does not support student retention as a sustainable, long-term solution for helping more students succeed, and we do not believe that it should become a state-recommended practice.
Getting more students on track toward reading proficiency in the early grades is crucial. In fact, we think that it is so important that we made it one of the "Gateways to Opportunity" that defines the Bell's work. Recently, we published a brief  that highlights the gaps in third grade reading proficiency both at the state and national levels, and we believe strongly that this bill is focused on the right problem.
On the positive side, we support many of the bill's key components. HB 1238 is comprehensive, collaborative and intervention-driven. It brings together parents, educators and specialists to address the individualized needs of students who are falling behind in kindergarten through third grade. We believe the READ plans, the focus on multiple assessments and interventions, and the creation of a resource bank filled with readily accessible materials for educators reflect a comprehensive approach toward getting more students on track.
However, on the negative side, the research strongly suggests that student retention should not be a central component in this strategy, especially as a blanket recommendation of the state. Research focused on both the short- and long-term effects of retention on students' educational outcomes suggests that retention does not help them succeed. Findings on the short-term effects of retention, measured in terms of test scores, are mixed. Some studies have found that retention increases student test scores during the repeated year, while others have found that retention has no effect or sometimes results in lower test scores. Additionally, the benefits of retention have been found to be short-lived.
Research on the long-term effects of retention, measured in terms of high school graduation, has consistently found that students who are retained are significantly more likely to drop out of high school compared to their promoted counterparts. Since the bill's ultimate goal is for all children in Colorado to attain proficiency and graduate from high school, it seems that retaining students is not consistent with this desired outcome.
Given these research findings, we are concerned that the strong emphasis in the bill on not advancing the lowest performing students to the next grade level will result in retention becoming a preferred strategy rather than a carefully selected option. Therefore, we urge you to amend the bill in three critical areas: the legislative intent, the notice to parents, and the parent meetings/conferences.
First, the bill's legislative declaration explicitly makes not advancing students with the lowest levels of proficiency the official intent of the General Assembly. We urge you to strike this language and amend the bill to clearly state that it is your intent that the difficult decision on whether or not to advance a student should be made by the parent and educators based on what the evidence shows is in the best interest of the child.
Second, we ask that you strike the bill's requirement that the notice to parents include language that "state law recommends that the student not advance to the next grade level." Such a blanket recommendation is particularly troubling because the research evidence does not support it as a best practice. In addition, it could easily influence parents into feeling compelled to opt for retention rather than ensuring that this decision is made carefully and collaboratively among parents and educators based on the child's own unique background and circumstances.
Third, we urge you to amend the bill to explicitly require that parents be informed during their meetings with educators of what the research actually shows are the potential positive and negative effects of retention. We believe that evidence-based, balanced information can help parents make more informed decisions about the costs and benefits of retention for their children. An opportune way to make sure that this information is available for educators to share with parents would be to require retention research to be included among the materials contained in the resource bank established by the bill.
In closing, the Bell Policy Center believes that HB 1238 contains many provisions and intervention strategies that will benefit students and help them attain reading proficiency. However, without the amendments related to retention outlined above, we are unable at this time to support the bill. We would be happy to work with all those involved on changes that address our concerns and strengthen the legislation.
Thank you for the opportunity to share this information. We also thank Representatives Massey and Hamner for bringing this important bill to you today. If you have any questions, or if I can provide further information, please call me at 303-297-0456 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Maitland, M. (Feb. 2, 2012). Data shows large gaps in reading ability of Colorado third-graders. Denver, CO: The Bell Policy Center
 Jimerson, S.R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School psychology review, 30(3), 420-437; Jimerson, S. R., Anderson, G. E., & Whipple, A. (2002). Winning the battle and losing the war: Examining the relation between grade retention and dropping out of high school. Psychology in Schools, 39(4), 441-457; Shepard, L.A., & Baca, L.M. (2012). Research findings on grade retention. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.