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The EdFly Blog

Getting New Mexico out of the reading doldrums

A New Mexico legislator recently called an early grade literacy bill an unfunded mandate.

To me, this is like calling infection prevention an unfunded mandate on hospitals.

In any case, she shelved the bill.

If it dies, I can guarantee you one thing. Fewer children in New Mexico will be able to read in the years ahead.

The bill would have retained third graders who are functionally illiterate, providing them intensive reading instruction.

When you promote kids who cannot read, all you do is mask a problem that resurfaces a few years down the road when they fail or drop out because they can’t read their coursework.

This is convenient for adults and devastating for children. You can track the statistics: The juvenile justice system, adult prisons and government assistance programs are overwhelmingly populated by people who cannot read.

New Mexico and Florida once had very similar and very awful scores on the National Assessment of Education progress reading assessments. These are the widely respected national tests that allow comparisons among states.

Fourth and eighth graders from Florida and New Mexico lagged far behind the national average in the 1990s.

New Mexico has stayed there, as the 2011 scores show the state’s fourth graders have barely budged. Its eighth graders actually have lost ground.

But Florida’s fourth graders have advanced about two full grade levels. Last year, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study ranked the Florida kids second in the world, and far above the combined average of all American states.

Florida eighth graders have advanced almost a grade level since the 1990s. Of the five largest states, Florida is the only one to have moved the needle on eighth grade reading during this time.

Here is another measure.

Florida has made rapid gains in promoting rigorous academic curriculum. Twenty-eight percent of the state’s high school graduates passed an Advanced Placement exam last year, which ranks fourth among all states. The groundwork for this success was laid in the state’s K-3 literacy program.

The national average for graduates passing an AP exam was 19.5 percent.

In New Mexico, the number was only 12.3 percent.

New Mexico is flat-lining. Its children are not being prepared for a world in which workers will require some form of post-secondary education to succeed.

Gov. Susana Martinez is trying to reverse decades of neglect with initiatives like grading schools A-F and focusing on early-grade literacy. She supports a retention bill.

What she is doing is not easy. About 70 percent of New Mexico’s fourth graders are on the free-and-reduced-lunch program, which compares to about 62 percent for Florida.

These children are hardest to reach. You will get one set of results if you make their literacy a noble goal and another set of results if you make it a mandate.

The easier solution would be to simply hand over more money and hope that works.

It will not.