Rita Hart

Rita Hart

As the 2016 legislative session winds down, lawmakers and the governor are debating not only when but even if third graders who are poor readers should be forced to repeat the third grade.

A 2012 law calls for third graders to repeat the grade if they are poor readers, but the policy wasn’t scheduled to go into effect until 2017. Senator Rita Hart, a Democrat from Wheatland, doesn’t want it to happen next year either. She says “state-ordered retention” is wrong.

“Published research on retention is vast,” Hart says. “The preponderance of evidence argues that students who repeat a grade are no better off and sometimes worse off than if they had been promoted.”

Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo who is dyslexic, briefly cried during a speech on the senate floor as he talked about being forced to repeat the fourth grade.

“I was labeled a dummy. There are deep emotional scars with this,” Dotzler said, sniffling. “…We need to work with these students. We need to give them help while they’re having trouble, not after the fact.”

Dotzler and others say it’s too late to wait to intervene when a student who reaches the end of third grade cannot read well.

A bipartisan committee of House and Senate members last week voted to delay until 2018 the requirement of summer school for lagging third grade readers, because there’s no money in the budget for it. That means no third grader in Iowa would be forced to repeat third grade until the fall of 2018 if legislators get their way.

Governor Terry Branstad doesn’t want to wait.

“We made a committment in 2012 to really strengthen our efforts to help all kids learn how to read before they leave third grade,” Branstad says. “This is kind of the last step and we need to continue to move forward with it as expeditiously as possible.”

Tests last fall found nearly 25 percent of Iowa third graders could not read at grade level.