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MAY 2004

Grade Retention Policy Must Address Learning Disabilities
by Assemblyman Steven Sanders

Last month I devoted this space to draw attention to the need for Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg to have sound, educational planning for children who will be held back as a result of the high-stakes third grade tests, noting that experience has shown that merely holding back a child who has not demonstrated minimal mastery of subject matter at a particular grade level has failed to produce good outcomes where individualized assistance is not provided. This month, I follow up on that with a focus on children with special needs.

I have written to Chancellor Klein and demanded that all children whom the Department will identify based on the 3rd grade high-stakes reading or math exams as those that cannot be promoted to the 4th grade be screened for learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other impairments or developmental disabilities. And at the statewide level, I am introducing a bill that would require every district to provide such screenings before holding back any elementary school child as part of a district's implementation of grade retention policies.

It is a certainty that some of the children who have not demonstrably achieved threshold scores on a standardized test are not achieving because of a variety of factors requiring special intervention, including a learning disability, ADHD, or a hearing or vision loss that has gone unidentified and unaddressed.

To simply place such a child in an intensive summer school program or have that child repeat the grade is senseless and a waste of resources. Early identification and appropriate intervention are the keys to providing children the targeted resources they need to meet their full potential, and it is both right and essential to make sure that the reason the child has not demonstrated minimal academic success isn't because the child has a previously undiagnosed or untreated disability or deficit.

How much better it is to catch these students say at third grade, rather than have them repeat a grade and be on a doomed academic trajectory, unassisted and without the right interventions. In the long run we will save money, and I don't think this is an exaggeration—save lives—in terms of quality and fulfillment of these children's true potential, by addressing their special needs early so that they have the tools they need to learn and succeed.

Proceeding with a plan to hold thousands of young students back without the screenings would be absolutely irresponsible. We'd just be ensuring that many of these youngsters will fail again. As has been said, insanity is doing something that doesn't—and in this instance cannot—work, over and over again.

The screenings should identify which children who have not performed well academically have either a learning disability, a developmental disability, or conditions that include ADHD, autism, or impairment either of a child's vision or hearing.

According to figures obtained from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Institute for Mental Health, and experts, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of public school students have either one or more learning disabilities, ADHD, or both. Undoubtedly, the percent of students with undiagnosed disabilities will be higher from among students who the city has deemed to have failed.

Chancellor Klein has often spoken about providing children with the tools they need to learn and succeed. To do that, we cannot treat every child the same, without identifying those who have a developmental or learning disability and then making sure the special instructional support services are in place for them. Yes, all children can be held to high standards. But only if we give each of them a real chance.#

Steven Sanders is chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. You can write to him at 201 East 16th Street, New York, NY 10003, e-mail sanders@assembly.state.ny.us or phone him at (212) 979-9696.

Education Update, Inc.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2005.