Reading by third-grade could become one of South Carolina’s top education priorities under a new proposal.

By the numbers

State officials estimated 2,800 of the state’s roughly 52,000 third-graders could be held back for failing to demonstrate grade-level reading proficiency.

Grade-level reading proficiency is defined as the worst readers among those scoring “not met” on the state exam.

The following are the total percentage of each school district’s third- graders who scored “not met” in English/language arts in 2012.

Berkeley 14.7%

Charleston 18%

Dorchester 2 12.1%

Dorchester 4 17.7%

Source: S.C. Education Oversight Committee, S.C. Dept. of Education

The Read to Succeed Act aims to strengthen the state’s emphasis on reading in pre-kindergarten to 12th grades, and it requires third-graders to be held back if they’re not reading on grade level.

What’s in the bill

Third-graders would have to demonstrate reading proficiency by the end of that school year. Any students who scored in the bottom 10 percent on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards in English/language arts would be retained the following year.

Every district in the state would have to create a comprehensive annual reading proficiency plan for prekindergarten through 12th grades starting in 2014-15.

Every student entering prekindergarten or kindergarten would take a readiness screening. Any prekindergarten through third-grade student having trouble reading grade-appropriate texts would be provided intensive in-class and supplemental reading intervention.

At the end of prekindergarten, kindergarten, first grade or second grade, students identified as having significant problems reading grade-appropriate texts would be provided summer reading camps.

Elementary and early childhood teachers would have to take the required five courses needed to obtain a literacy teacher add-on endorsement, and middle and high school teachers would have to take three of those courses.

The state would have a new Read to Succeed Office and a Reading Proficiency Panel to help school districts and universities implement the law’s requirements.

Source: The Read to Succeed Act

State lawmakers and educators say the research is clear: One in six children who aren’t reading proficiently by third grade don’t graduate from high school on time.

“It’s just common sense,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, who is the bill’s primary sponsor. “I can’t believe we’re not already doing this. Social promotion doesn’t work.”

The proposal seems likely to move forward. In addition to Peeler, its supporters include lawmakers on the Senate’s education committees and the state Education Oversight Committee. Peeler called it “about as much (political) muscle as you can have.”

He hopes to get the law passed this year, and an education subcommittee will discuss it Wednesday.

Cost and controversy

It’s not clear how much the bill’s requirements would cost, but Peeler said he doesn’t want the law to be an unfunded mandate. The state has a pot of $136 million that goes to schools serving at-risk students, and some of that could be redirected to this initiative, he said.

“We need to concentrate in lower grades and identify problems at an earlier age,” he said.

Read to Succeed is modeled after a Florida law that took effect in 2002 under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Since then, 13 other states have required that students be proficient in reading before being promoted to fourth grade.

Still, some have criticized Florida’s results, and research has shown retention alone doesn’t solve students’ academic deficiencies. Paul Thomas, an associate education professor at Furman University in Greenville, recently dedicated a blog post to why South Carolina should not follow Florida’s example. He cited those reasons, and added a third: it would “ignore and replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as (South Carolina).”

In South Carolina, the plan has a number of components, such as creating a state office and panel to oversee the program, requiring additional training on reading for teachers, and providing reading intervention, such as summer reading camps.

Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, third-graders who scored in the bottom 10 percent of the “not met” category on the state’s standardized exam, PASS, would be retained, and districts would have to give them at least 90 minutes of daily intensive reading instruction the following year.

Officials estimated about 2,800 of the state’s roughly 52,000 third-graders would fall into that category, but the bill has a number of possible exemptions, such as some students with disabilities or students who are considered limited English proficient and have had less than two years of English instruction.

Peeler said he’s had pushback on this piece of the bill because of the stigma retention puts on a child. But he said “a stigma for a year beats a stigma for a lifetime.”

Betsy Reidenbach, the director of Charleston schools’ literacy-based learning division, said the exemptions would mean few of the district’s third-graders would be retained.

Ahead of the curve

The Charleston County School Board made literacy its No. 1 priority in 2010, and it since has poured millions of dollars into efforts to help the district’s worst readers.

Melanie Barton, executive director of the state Education Oversight Committee, said Charleston was leading the state on literacy, and the bill in many ways follows the district’s example.

Local officials agreed, saying much of what the bill requires already is happening in Charleston.

“It sounds like it could’ve been something we wrote,” Reidenbach said. “Whatever they do to help us would be to our advantage, but it’s going to cost them a lot to put this together.”

Charleston, for example, already requires additional training hours in reading for its K-2 teachers, and students who refuse the district’s offer for extra help are retained. Still, Reidenbach said any money to expand services to prekindergarten would be helpful, and that’s an area the district wants to address in 2013-14.

Supportive reactions

The General Assembly created the S.C. Reading Achievement Systemic Initiative two years ago to give recommendations on how the state could address illiteracy. Some of the bill comes directly from those suggestions, such as creating partnerships to increase the amount students read, and ensuring teachers have pre- and in-service training on effective reading instruction.

The state Education Oversight Committee has been pushing for a stronger focus on reading, and it gave input during the writing of the Read to Succeed bill.

“When you make reading a state priority, then everything you do, especially early childhood, flows into that,” Barton said. “If we set this (third-grade) benchmark, it’s going to transform the whole system from pre-K to third grade so that we identify struggling readers and we take initiative early on.”

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has been an advocate of a statewide focus on reading, and he repeatedly said so when discussing students’ test scores this past fall.

Jay W. Ragley, Zais’ deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs, said Zais is supportive of the bill’s promotion gateway for third-graders, and he’d like to see another added for seventh-graders. Zais also agrees that intensive reading intervention should be given to retained students.

But most of the bill’s other requirements, such as summer reading camps and a new state reading office, are too prescriptive, Ragley said. Zais wants to streamline the proposal and exclude those parts.

“That’s been his philosophy — set a goal and tell district how it’s measured, and leave the implementation and flexibility to local districts,” he said.

Other state education groups aren’t raising many red flags with the bill. Scott Price, attorney for the state School Boards Association, said he’s behind the bill but questions how it would be funded.

“We just hope they develop an accurate assessment of how much it’s going to cost and that they put the resources there,” he said. “We’re not very good about doing that in South Carolina with new programs.”

The state PTA hasn’t taken a position on the proposal, but Clifford Fulmore, the incoming president of the state PTA and parent of a freshman in Charleston County schools, said the focus on literacy and retention of third-graders seemed like a good idea.

“We would be doing a disservice to the children by allowing them to move on,” he said. “If we can take a look at different measures to help, I would support that.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.