Martinez targets social promotion of students

-A A +A
By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and a bipartisan group of lawmakers want to stop promoting public school students to the next grade if they lack required basic skills.

Martinez joined Republican and Democratic lawmakers at a news conference on Thursday in support of legislation to halt the practice of "social promotion."

A House committee has approved two bills that would stop third-graders from moving to the fourth grade if they aren't proficient in reading. Currently, a parent can overrule a school that wants to retain a student rather than promoting them to the next grade. However, that would end under the proposed legislation.

Martinez and legislative supporters say it's critical for students to be able to read by the third grade.

"It puts our kids at a great disadvantage," said Martinez. "Students who can't read in the early grades have a difficult time recovering lost ground as curriculum advances. Many become disillusioned and frustrated and give up and they drop out."

Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana, said, "I've always believed that if a child can't read, the child can't learn."

Florida implemented a policy against social promotion of third-graders in 2002, and Martinez is using that state's programs as a model for what needs to be done to improve public schools in New Mexico. Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera once worked for former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida.

In the 2009-2010 school year, almost 43 percent of the state's 25,000 third-graders scored below proficiency in reading on the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment.

If the legislation is enacted, the state would establish a test score for students to meet if they are to advance to the fourth-grade.

Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association-New Mexico, said in an interview that the union has remained neutral on the social promotion legislation but agreed with the goal of ensuring that third-graders can read.

"Our fear is we will use the retention part because that's the easy part but we don't do the hard part, which is providing the resources that those children with extra needs will really need," said Bowyer.

Skandera suggested at the news conference that public schools receive adequate state and federal financing to deal with students with reading problems.

"We've seen a real investment in our state. It's time to make sure we get the return on the investment we've made," said Skandera.

The House Education Committee is expected to consider the social promotion legislation next week. Skandera said supporters will combine the measures and make changes, including providing exceptions to the social promotion policy for students learning English and those who can demonstrate a reading proficiency through a portfolio of their work rather than a standardized test.

One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, said, "This is not about being a Republican or a Democrat. This is about standing for our children."