Wednesday / April 24

When Kids Can’t Read: Policy and Practice Mistakes That Make It Worse

This was originally published on Improving Our Schools.

Reading Proficiency, Unprepared Students, Untrained Teachers, and Ill-Advised Responses:  A National Dilemma and New National Report

Dear Colleagues,

Since the early 1990s (and even before), our schools have been laser-focused on students’ proficiency in literacy.  In the early 1990s, many educators were embroiled (actively or against their will) in the “reading wars”- – where different professional “camps” advocated for “their” phonics-based, whole language, blended learning, or other favorite approach to reading instruction.

In 2000 (April), after narrowing its review of over 100,000 research studies to several hundred for critical analysis, the National Reading Panel published its Teaching Children to Read report.  This Report clearly stated that the best approach to reading instruction should integrate (a) explicit instruction in phonemic awareness; (b) systematic phonics instruction; (c) methods to improve fluency; and (d) ways to enhance comprehension.

This Report was highlighted in President George W. Bush’s version of the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA; coined the No Child Left Behind Act), and the Reading First Program was born.

Unfortunately, the administration (no pun intended) of the Reading First Program by the U.S. Department of Education was based more on egotism, political favors, and unethical levels of programmatic and fiscal control (than on a concern for student, staff, and school outcomes).  This resulted in U.S. Department of Education (USDoE) personnel awarding over $6 billion in federal funds to state departments of education (SEAs) where they:

  • Dictated which reading instruction programs would (or would not) be funded;
  • Told and allowed some state grant applicants to change their reading programs to those that were “preferred” after they had been submitted and reviewed; and
  • Endorsed a small number of professional development providers who utilized the USDoE’s “preferred” approaches to reading instruction.

Significantly, the Reading First Program was unfunded by Congress not because of the economy or partisan politics, but because the USDoE’s Inspector General (IG) investigated the Program and validated that the problems described above (and more) had occurred.

[CLICK HERE for the IG report and CLICK HERE for a 2006 Washington Post article on this debacle.]

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Finally, in this current decade, the focus on reading instruction has narrowed largely to a single high-stakes test that is given once per year and is being used to measure students’ “proficiency.”  To make matters worse, in some states, the scores on this test are being used to require academic remediation.  Moreover, over a dozen states require the indiscriminate retention of students, especially up to third grade, who are not reading “at grade level.”

As the history where bad policy results in even worse student outcomes continues to repeat itself, districts need to recognize and question federal and state policies that are not scientifically-based, classroom-friendly, functionally sound, and that just do not make student-sense.

This is not a cavalier statement.  I have worked in a state education agency (SEA) for over 12 years and interacted with many other state’s SEA colleagues for over 30 years.  Many SEA “leaders” either know that their policies are resulting in bad practice, or they don’t know what they don’t know about the science and practice- – given today’s topic- – of reading instruction, assessment, intervention, and evaluation.

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Why Kids Can’t Read

First of all, the benchmark of wanting students to master their phonemic awareness and, especially, phonetic decoding and concomitant fluency skills by the end of 3rd grade is artificial, developmentally questionable, and even dangerous.  I say this because:

  • Many students (especially from backgrounds of poverty, who have specific disabilities, who are medically fragile, who have speech and language issues, or whose parents do not speak English as their primary language at home) do not come to school academically ready to benefit from the school’s core literacy instruction- – and yet, many schools are driven more by the curriculum or their curricular maps, than by students’ functional status and need.
  • There still are many states where full-time kindergarten is not yet required- -never mind states who are uncomfortable with the recent push toward fully funded pre-kindergarten programs.  And so, some students have less pre-K to Grade 3 classroom instruction than others, even though all of them finish 3rd grade (chronologically) at the same time.
  • Many schools do not have well-trained (see below) teachers or well-designed curricula to maximize students’ literacy learning and mastery.  This results in students who are not reading at the end of 3rd grade who are “instructional” or “curricular” casualties– – even though they are perceived as “student casualties.”
  • Many schools are using reading screening tests to make instructional or intervention decisions, where they are not following these screeners up with diagnostic tests to validate and isolate the specific problems so that instructional or intervention approaches can be linked to specific student needs.
  • When students have significant skill gaps in reading (for example, they are one or more years below grade level), many schools are still using a “core curriculum plus 30 minutes of remediation” approach, rather than changing the students’ core instruction so that it focuses on teaching skills at their functional level.
  • Because of resource gaps, many schools are using largely unsupervised and lesser trained paraprofessionals to provide the “Tier II” or even “Tier III” interventions- – rather than ensuring that the students with the greatest needs get the best resources.
  • Some schools have so bought into the “reading by 3rd grade” perspective that they have forgotten that students have different “speeds of acquisition”- – that is, that they learn, master, and apply reading (and other academic) skills at different average rates.
  • Finally, some students- – especially those who are mastering literacy skills at a somewhat slower rate- – receive or perceive the message that “they are failing in reading.”  This message sometimes results in motivational or emotional problems to the degree that these students’ learning is now undermined by these factors.

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In essence, we need to question how 3rd grade became such a “benchmark” for reading.  We don’t have a comparable grade-level benchmark for math. . . or written expression. . . or science. . . or any other academic area.

Did it begin because some publishers, guided by some “experts,” decided their curricula needed to shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in Grade 3?

Did some national group developing literacy standards somehow create this criterion?

Or is this just another historical artifact that has now been framed in policy that actually reflects bad practice?

Regardless, what if we moved to a more developmentally-sensitive, acquisition-driven, and mastery-focused perspective. . . where the “benchmark” was extended to an expectation of mastering functional reading skills by the end of 4th grade?

I am not suggesting a change in our reading standards or curricular scope and sequences here- – especially as many students are on-track for grade-level reading in 3rd grade.  I am suggesting developmental, situational, and instructional flexibility– – expecting, programming for, and giving the large group of additional, still-typical students the time and attention they need – – through 4th grade- – to learn to read.

Indeed, this is the flexibility needed when some students are consistently making 8 months of reading progress for every 10 months that they are in school.  These students are learning and mastering their reading skills- – just at a different normative pace.  They are not (typically) learning disabled or in need of special education services.  And they simply need more time- – without the “baggage” that they are not learning “like the other students.”

But the critical point is this:  If we give these students more time, and if we teach them at their functional skill levels from kindergarten on- – with additional services and supports as needed, these students will likely master the literacy skills that we would like them to master by 3rd grade. . .  by 4th grade.

And so, who cares if it takes another year?  Once they have mastered their foundational skills, we can start using them as we move into applying these skills for comprehension in different types of texts (yes, I know that, with the Common Core, we have been doing this all along).

If we don’t do this, we will end up where we already are- – with large percentages of students are not able to functionally read or use their reading skills in other academic or applied areas.  And we haven’t even mentioned the academically frustrated or defeated students who begin to behaviorally act out and become “discipline problems.”

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Policy Flaws and More Reasons Kids Can’t Read

As briefly discussed above, there are a number of unwise policies and ill-advised practices that mandate and guide, respectively, some educators’ thinking when confronted with students who are not reading or reading as well as other students.  The biggest problem with these policies and practices is when they require or recommend instructional or intervention approaches that do not directly address the underlying reason(s) for students’ reading difficulties.

Let’s look at three literacy policies that, when universally applied, could harm or damage some students.

Policy Flaw #1:  Testing all Students at their Grade Level with High-Stakes Tests.  When students are functioning significantly below grade level in reading, it makes no sense to test them at their grade level when giving the high-stakes standards-based assessments each year.

For example, when fourth grade students, who are reading at the second grade level, are made to take the fourth grade benchmark exam, most of their responses will be unreliable, and hence, their score will be invalid.  This is typically because (a) they don’t understand the question, the material, or how to communicate their knowledge; or (b) they are simply guessing- – if they actually complete the test, without “shutting down,” at all.

Applying this issue to students with cognitive disabilities, why would the federal government limit every school district nationwide to the same arbitrary percentage of students who can take an adapted high-stakes test (or whose test scores will or will not “count”). . . especially when the number of cognitively disabled students varies across school districts?

More importantly, why would we require any student, who should be taking an adapted assessment to begin with, to take a test whose results will be meaningless, and whose self-confidence and subsequent motivation might be undermined because of it?

The solution to this problem is to design and use tests (like the one designed by the Smarter Balance Common Core State Standards group) that vary the difficulty level of the test materials based on the students’ previous correct or incorrect responses.

This way, we get an accurate assessment of every students’ current skill level in reading.  And, we can still evaluate how well the school is teaching its students in reading- – by pooling the grade-level data to identify the percentage of students functioning above, at, below, or well below grade level, along with their growth from year to year.

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Policy Flaw #2:  Forcing All Non-Proficient Students into Reading Remediation.  A number of states require students who are “Not Proficient” or “Basic or Below Basic” on the state benchmark test to be automatically put onto an Academic Intervention Plan and/or to receive remedial interventions.  This is often done (a) without knowing why the student did not score well on the state test; and/or (b) what specific skill areas need specific remediation, and at what level of intensity.

Below are some of the “high hit” reasons why students do not do well on state standards tests:

  • They have not been exposed to the material (e.g., due to excessive absences, teacher omission, a scope and sequence that teaches some material after the test has been taken)
  • They have not been taught the academic material to mastery (e.g., due to ineffective teaching, differentiation, or curricular materials)
  • They have not learned and mastered the material (e.g., due to lack of student readiness, attention, prerequisites, practice, or motivation)
  • They have skill gaps in related academic areas (e.g., they scored poorly on the reading assessment because their expressive writing skills negatively impacted their performance on short answer and open-response questions)
  • They were unprepared for test itself (e.g., the format, types of questions, length, the technological or computer-specific demands, the scoring rubrics)
  • They were unable to apply their existing knowledge to the questions and content on the test
  • They were not motivated to do well on the test, or their motivation and test performance was negatively impacted because they were unsuccessful during the test
  • They were not emotionally prepared for the test, or they let their emotions (e.g., anxiety, fear of failure) impact their performance during the test
  • They were negatively impacted by situations that occurred (or did not occur) on the day of the test (e.g., not getting enough sleep the night before, a problem at home or on the way to school, needing to take the test on a strange computer or in an unfamiliar setting)

The point, once again, is that schools need to determine why a student has not passed their state proficiency test in order to know what instructional, intervention, or other approaches are needed to address “the problem.”

If students were impacted by a situation that occurred on the day of the test, they should be allowed to retake an alternative version of the test (just like the SAT or ACT).  They should not immediately be programmed for remediation and/or an Academic Intervention Plan.

If students were not motivated to take the test with integrity, no amount of academic remediation will solve that problem.  In fact, the remediation might be counter-productive.

If ineffective instruction or curricular materials impacted student learning, remediation is appropriate, but the school and district must immediately address these gaps so that they do not reoccur.

Relative to this latter point, and consistent with a study done by the National Council on Teacher Quality a decade ago, the International Literacy Association just released its Preliminary Report on Teacher Preparation for Literacy Instruction earlier this summer.  This Report documents the likelihood that many newly-certified elementary teachers are unprepared to teach reading.

The Report notes that (a) up to 34 states have no specific professional teaching standards in reading for elementary teachers; (b) up to 24 states have no literacy or reading course requirements; (c) many states have no practicum or internship requirements for literacy practice and supervision; and (d) many states do not require a test to assess competency in reading instruction for teacher-licensure candidates.

[CLICK HERE for Report]

While it is great that states are now requiring teacher evaluations, why are they not requiring teachers to be well-trained in the pedagogical areas that are being (or should be) evaluated?

But let’s be honest. Virtually all of the teacher evaluation reports published for the past decade (beginning in Cincinnati) have found that virtually all of the teachers observed are “effective.” So either the evaluations are not sensitive enough for a true diagnostic assessment of our teachers, or the professional development and clinical supervision process with our teachers (which is what teacher evaluation should be about) is flawed.

This is not about teacher (or administrator) bashing. Principals are now spending an inordinate amount of time on teacher evaluation. There needs to be a “return” on this investment- – a real pay-off that improves instruction and positively impacts students.

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Policy Flaw #3:  Retaining All Non-Proficient Students Especially between Kindergarten through Grade 3.

As noted earlier, over a dozen states now require the indiscriminate retention of students, especially up to third grade, who are not reading “at grade level.”  This is occurring even in the face of research that suggests that the “costs and benefits” of retention (or social promotion) are not always predictable on an individual student level.  That is, for some students, retention may increase the probability of later behavioral problems or school drop-out; for other students, it improves their academic skills and confidence, and facilitates their eventual graduation from high school.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), in a position statement on Grade Retention and Social Promotion, discusses a number of “alternatives to retention and social promotion.”  One of them is:

“Multi-tiered problem-solving models (are needed) to provide early and intensive evidence-based instruction and intervention to meet the needs of all students across academic, behavioral, and social-emotional domains.”

[CLICK HERE for Position Statement]

When you look at the different reasons (see above) to explain why a student did not pass their state benchmark test in literacy, it is clear that some of these reasons are not going to be “remediated” through retention.  Moreover, even if the student is (socially) promoted, these situations are not going to magically disappear.  That is, they still need to be addressed through instructional, curricular, and/or intervention services, supports, strategies, or programs.

If, as suggested by NASP, we do not do the assessment to determine why a student is not succeeding in reading (or any other academic area), then we will not know what services or supports are needed, and which services and supports will be most helpful when paired with another, repeated year in school.

Critically, retention is NOT an intervention.  It is simply the opportunity for the right instructional or intervention approaches to succeed.  If another year at the same grade level will not benefit a student, it should not be required.  Here, again, is where policy creates more problems.

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Finally, relative to retention policies and why students enter school “not ready for prime-time,” it is important to highlight the work of a national group leading The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (  This group is dedicated to advancing state policies and instructional practices (at home and school) that help students from low income homes achieve grade-level reading by Grade 3.

Indeed, this group highlights that, in contrast with higher socioeconomic homes, children from low income homes (a) hear up to 30 million fewer words at home by age 3; (b) have fewer books during their preschool years (61% have no books); and (c) know fewer letters of the alphabet, and (d) understand up to 50% fewer receptive and expressive words when they enter kindergarten.

Thus, it is no surprise that these students enter kindergarten with a literacy readiness gap- – a gap that schools have historically not closed by Grade 3, Grade 6, or even Grade 9.

Given this, leaders from The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading have targeted students from low income homes in the prevention and support areas below.

  • Their pre-academic exposure and readiness from birth to kindergarten;
  • Their chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and beyond
  • Their loss of reading skills and proficient during the summer months
  • The engagement, involvement, and play/verbal interactions of their parents at home from birth and beyond
  • Their physical health and wellness, and how these areas impact growth, development, readiness, and learning

On their Third Grade Retention handout, The Campaign states that the “components of a smart policy” relative to helping students read by the end of Third Grade include the following pre-school (birth to age 5) strategies:

  • Making sure that babies are born healthy and are developing on track
  • Equipping parents, caregivers, and child care providers with the knowledge and skills to promote children’s language development and early literacy
  • Providing access to preschool and full-day kindergarten, especially for low-income children
  • Aligning the preschool curriculum with that in the primary grades
  • Providing ongoing assessments for struggling readers in the primary grades
  • Supporting children with reading disabilities and those still learning English
  • Making sure all young children attend school regularly
  • Supporting engaging summer programs, especially for low-income children

[CLICK HERE for Handout]

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I honestly get nervous when I focus discussions like this one just on reading.  Indeed, most of the points and suggestions above can and should be generalized to math, science, writing, and all other academic (and behavioral) areas.

Moreover, while the focus here has been on reading instruction during students’ first years in schools, there is so much more to say about secondary reading instruction.  But. . . that will have to wait.

The ultimate point is that:  teaching is a complex, sophisticated, collaborative, scientifically-based, and professional calling.  It is messy at times- – especially when we do not have “control” over all of the variables that are needed to help students achieve.

At the same time, when we are confronted with one-size-fits-all policies that are actually counter-productive to many students’ achievement, we need to question those policies and adapt our practices.

Sometimes, I do not feel that some legislators (or even some federal or state department of education leaders) trust educators to do the right things.  Thus, some of the policies are meant to control the educational process so that people are “required” to do the right thing.

However, that (as above and as with other past educational policies) has not always worked- – on behalf of students, staff, and schools.

I am not going to make this a “kumbaya” moment and ask, “Can we all not work together?”

I am going to suggest that we consider how we are approaching reading readiness, instruction, assessment, and response (when students are not fully succeeding) and ask, “Can we not make this work better?”

I hope that this information is useful to you, and I appreciate everything that you do for student learners in our country.  As always, if I can help your school(s) or district in any of the areas related to this or previous Blog discussions (see, please do not hesitate to contact me.  Feel free to forward this Blog link to your colleagues.



Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

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