Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Bills Prod Schools to Hold Back Third-Graders

Ohanian Comment: Just when you think your mind can't get boggled any more, along comes the outrage of corporate-politicos deciding when third graders should move on to fourth grade. Give Banchero credit for including some evidence showing the negative results from making children repeat a grade.

by Stephanie Banchero

Lawmakers in at least four states are considering legislation that would make students repeat third grade if they can't pass state reading exams, reviving debates about whether retaining students boosts achievement or increases their odds of dropping out.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Colorado introduced legislation early this month that would prod schools to hold back children in kindergarten through third grade who don't meet state reading standards. In the early grades, parents could insist the child be promoted, but at third grade, the school district would have the ultimate say.

"The goal is not to retain students, but to get parents, teachers and students all working collaboratively to address the literacy problems when they first show up," said Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat who is a sponsor of the bill. Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee also are considering bills on the issue.

All the bills, as well as similar ones that passed recently in Oklahoma, Arizona and Indiana, aim to address literacy deficiencies that exist nationwide. Only one-third of U.S. schoolchildren had proficient scores on the most recent national reading exam, and scores have barely budged in two decades. That comes as children have made steady gains in math.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of school. Third grade is seen as so important for reading because many other subjects begin in earnest the following school year. Also, third grade is the year that federal law mandates all states must begin testing reading and math.

The country has spent billions on failed reading strategies. Now, states are taking a different tack: push individualized reading instruction in the early grades and hold back kids who don't pass muster by third grade.

But the evidence is mixed on whether retention helps or hurts kids. Chicago made national headlines in the late 1990s by holding back tens of thousands of students who were deficient in math and reading. But a series of studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that, in general, retained students did no better in later years than students who had nearly identical academic achievement but were promoted. Retained students also were more likely to have dropped out.

"These children would have been just as well off if they had not been retained. It didn't solve anything," said Jenny Nagaoka, associate director at the consortium, who did some of the research. Chicago has quietly relaxed the promotion rules, making it easier for low-performing students to move ahead.

Proponents of retention point to Florida, where in 2002, under Gov. Jeb Bush, the state began holding back third graders who failed the state reading exam. Before the policy was adopted, Florida students posted scores below the national average on the fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress. By 2011, Florida fourth-grade scores had risen dramatically and were above the national average. In eighth grade, however, the Florida scores haven't budged.

Kyla Burd, a third-grade teacher at Carrollwood Elementary in Tampa, Fla., said students who struggle to read at third grade are "painfully aware" they are behind, and she said holding them back can be beneficial if they receive targeted attention.

"Holding back a child is not an easy decision," said Ms. Burd, who has held back students and has two retained kids in her current classroom. "But the alternative is you just move them ahead, hope for the best and then watch them struggle in fourth grade."

The bills in New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa would assess students' literacy skills in kindergarten through third grade and mandate special instruction for students falling behind. The New Mexico initiative sets aside $17 million to pay for that instruction; the Colorado one sets aside $3 million.

In New Mexico, where the Republican governor has made student retention a part of her education blueprint this year, some Democrats have labeled the legislation the "third grade flunking" bill and have introduced competing legislation that would scrap the retention provision.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad wants to use about $10 million to pay for specific interventions, such as an additional 90 minutes of reading instruction for students retained. "We are trying to strike a balance between making sure children learn to read and recognize it's hard for a child to be held back," said Linda Fandel, the governor's special assistant for education. "We know it's hard on a child's self-esteem to be held back, but it's even harder on self-esteem to be illiterate."

Write to Stephanie Banchero at stephanie.banchero@wsj.com

— Stephanie Banchero
Wall Street Journal





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.