Seventy-seven Tucson children may have to repeat the third grade after failing to meet statewide reading standards.

The children are the first group of students impacted by a 2010 law that requires third-graders to be approaching or reading at grade level to be promoted to the fourth grade.

The state gave schools three years to get students up to speed, even providing additional funding to improve K-3 literacy. Even so, Tucson’s largest school district is retaining twice as many as it did before the law was in effect.

The Tucson Unified School District retained 42 students due to the Move On When Reading legislation. On average, about 20 third-graders are held back in TUSD each year.

While twice as many third-graders are facing retention this year, the number is far lower than what it could have been — 300-plus — had the law gone into effect in 2010.

The students hail from 26 of the district’s 63 schools that serve third-graders. All but one of the 26 schools serve high-poverty populations with high mobility rates. For Steve Holmes, the assistant superintendent of TUSD’s curriculum and instruction department, it all comes down to the quality of the district’s curriculum, which was found to be lacking in a recent audit.

“The root cause of why this is occurring is we don’t have a standard curriculum that is taught in every school,” Holmes said. “So what may have been taught first quarter at one school may be different than what was taught first quarter at another school, and that’s not helpful for children who are moving between schools. To guarantee that they’re going to get the full curriculum in one year is risky.

“If we have a good curriculum, that will mitigate issues associated with poverty.”

TUSD is vowing to focus on three areas: reworking the curriculum and doing more targeted work in kindergarten, first and second grades; examining intervention models to ensure that only those that are effective are being used; and having a good support system for students that ensures that staff is intervening early and using data appropriately.

Amphitheater, Marana and Vail school districts retained only one student each, while Catalina Foothills, Flowing Wells, Sahuarita and Tanque Verde had no students impacted by the law.

Tucson’s second largest school district, Sunnyside, which serves more than 17,000 students — one-third of the size of TUSD — has 32 students at risk of being held back.

Sunnyside has long struggled with academic achievement, with more than half of its schools earning grades of Cs and Ds from the Arizona Department of Education and none earning an A.

2013 AIMS data showed about 80 Sunnyside third-graders fell far below the reading standard, which this year would have resulted in being retained unless the students fell into one of two exemption categories: English-language learners with less than two years of English instruction and students with special needs in reading or language.

Intervention programs

TUSD has been working to reduce third-grade retentions, implementing intervention programs, increasing communication with parents and notifying them if their child scores below the standard on assessments, and keeping detailed information on students to track their progress and create support plans for struggling students, including additional tutoring during the school day.

Even now, students are getting a second chance through a summer school program that includes an AIMS-like reading test. Should the students pass a pre- or post-test, they will be promoted. Sunnyside is offering a similar opportunity to its students.

For those who are unable to show reading proficiency and are forced to repeat the third grade, TUSD schools will provide targeted instruction to identify areas the students need to make gains, whether it’s in phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary or comprehension.

“We’ll have to be more diagnostic in nature,” said Holmes, of TUSD. “With these children in particular, we’re going to have go real deep, almost into a medical-like model where we’re actually diagnosing and planning a really specific intervention treatment that matches the child.”

There will also be increased scrutiny and support at five schools that together have 40 percent of the children at risk of repeating the third grade — Erickson, Holladay, Lawrence, Lynn/Urquides and McCorkle, which earned grades of Cs and Ds this year from the Arizona Department of Education.

While the Sunnyside School District did not identify which schools had third-grade retentions, spokeswoman Mary Veres said campuses have targeted reading instruction and intervention for kindergarteners through third-graders.

It has also encouraged parent involvement to help develop oral language and reading with children daily to increase fluency and vocabulary.

Strong targeted interventions were the key to success in the Flowing Wells School District, which is a fraction of TUSD’s size, but serves an equally challenging population. Of the 5,500 students enrolled, 71 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Nearly half of Flowing Wells’ kindergarten through third-graders either came from another school or district or left before the end of the school year.

Despite the demographics, no Flowing Wells students were held back as a result of Move On When Reading and retentions in years past have averaged about two students a year.

“We have been focused on early literacy for a long time,” said Audrey Reff, Flowing Wells director of federal programs. “This is not something that was new to us with the legislation.”

Flowing Wells has worked for at least five years on coordinating curriculum and support programs for all of its campuses, allowing for an “all-hands-on-deck approach,” Reff said.

The district conducts early screenings to measure students’ reading behaviors against certain benchmarks, intervening immediately to close the gap.

Teachers are also highly trained in delivering a broad and balanced reading curriculum, and support specialists are in tune with classroom goals and expectations week-by-week.

“We’re happy with our results, we know that we’re not satisfied until we have 100 percent of our students meeting and exceeding standards regardless of the challenges that they face,” Reff said.

“So our work isn’t done but we’re really excited that this first year has allowed all of our third-graders to be promoted to 4th grade. We’re thankful that we have so many people who care and are dedicated to helping these kids to achieve at high levels.”

A Foundational skill

The Move On When Reading law is contentious, primarily because of the retention requirement — studies show that holding back a child can result in low self-esteem, poor peer relations and even alcohol or drug abuse.

Even when a student is not reading at grade level, there may be other reasons to support promotion, Holmes said. And in a good system with strong curriculum, the next grade-level teacher would be able to help the child catch up.

“I think children need to be given every opportunity to advance,” TUSD assistant superintendent Holmes said. “I think holding students back over the long term has been proven to not necessarily work. But I understand the state’s position and we’ll certainly ensure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure kids are prepared and meeting the standards — that’s our business and that is our obligation to the community.”

Holmes acknowledged that the law has placed a spotlight on what is widely considered to be an important grade level.

Traditionally, students learn to read in kindergarten through third grade, but after that, they are reading text books and other materials in order to learn, Flowing Wells’ Reff said.

“It’s a basic foundational skill,” she said. “We are a high-poverty area and our kids do have lots of challenges, but we believe that literacy is the door, the gateway to helping them overcome all of those obstacles and do what they want to do.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.