Flunked, retained, held back. Whatever you call it, increasing numbers of states are not promoting students who are struggling to read at the end of third grade.
Thirty-two states have passed legislation designed to improve third-grade literacy, according to the Education Commission of the States. Retention is part of the policies in 14 states, with some offering more leeway than others.
“Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can’t read is irresponsible — and cruel,” said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in announcing in his recent State of the State address that third-graders should demonstrate an ability to read before being promoted. He also proposed a $12 million program for improving third-graders’ reading skills.
Backers say retention policies put pressure on teachers and parents to make sure children succeed.
But opponents say students fare better if they’re promoted and offered extra help. They say holding students back does nothing to address the underlying problems that caused them to struggle and is the single biggest school drop-out predictor. Students who’ve been retained have a two-fold increased risk of dropping out compared to students with similar academic struggles who weren’t retained, said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Human Capital Research Collaborative, citing studies of students in Chicago and Baltimore.
Retention policies were tried out in large city districts but in recent years have been scaled back or dropped in places like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Los Angeles district spokeswoman Monica Carazo said her school system studied retention and determined that “research did not show it as an effective practice.”
Ending so-called social promotion was one of Jeb Bush’s education reforms when he was governor of Florida, and his nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education began touting the reform package after it started in 2008.
“I think reform-minded education chiefs and state legislatures and governors are looking for something to do to help kids be successful and to do that they need policies that aren’t the same old, same old,” said Mary Laura Bragg, the foundation’s director of state policy implementation.
Although the number isn’t tracked nationally, some national representative studies show that about one-fifth of eighth graders have been retained at least once, said Reynolds, who has studied retention. He said there is wide variation among school districts, with some in urban areas reporting retention rates as high as 40 percent.
Because students shift away from learning to read in the early grades to reading to learn in the upper elementary grades, most state-mandated retention policies make third grade the make-or-break year. Such policies also give struggling students another year of instruction before they take a test as fourth-graders used to compare the educational performance of states and nations, called the National Assessment of Education Progress.
(Next page: Florida’s struggle)