A Look Inside the Debate on Third-Grade Retention for Struggling Readers

A Look Inside the Debate on Third-Grade Retention for Struggling Readers

“Before third grade, students learn to read; after third grade, they read to learn.”

This adage is often repeated in literacy education circles, and research overwhelmingly supports this underlying truth. In 2010, a research report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation titled “Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters” detailed how a student’s reading proficiency at this point in their education is an important predictor of their future academic success.

The data presented in the “Early Warning!” report is sobering: According to a citation from the Children's Reading Foundation, a student who reads below grade level in fourth grade will be able to comprehend less than half of the printed curriculum. Since so much of a student’s learning materials in fourth grade and beyond require reading and interpreting text, it should come as no surprise that non-proficient readers are apt to fall behind in all subject areas. Indeed, the report also cites the National Research Council’s assertion that “academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.”

In light of this research, educators and families are rightly asking how they can best support a non-proficient third-grade reader. Should the student be “held back” for another year in the third grade? Or should they advance along with their peers—a practice known as “social promotion”? It’s not an easy call. While research has demonstrated time and again that reading proficiency is a predictor of future academic success, it also suggests that the short-term benefits of retention may not outweigh the long-term risks.

According to Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew’s study titled “The Scarring Effects of Primary-Grade Retention? A Study of Cumulative Advantage in the Educational Career,” the effects of retention may cast long shadows over a student’s academic future. Indeed, empirical evidence from the study demonstrated that students who repeat a year in elementary school are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than students with similar backgrounds. Troublingly, this statistic held even when high-school graduation rates of siblings in the same family were compared.

Due to the conflicting evidence outlined above, it’s no wonder educators and families often have difficulty deciding whether to retain a non-proficient reader in the third grade—and although the debate continues, more and more states are looking toward policies that recommend or require retention. In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), some states have already passed legislation requiring reading proficiency before students may be promoted to fourth grade; currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia require retention of non-proficient third-grade readers.

However, 14 of these “required-retention” states allow students to be promoted to fourth grade conditionally—that is, if they qualify for a good-cause exemption such as limited English proficiency; special education; participating in an intervention; previous retentions; demonstrating reading proficiency through a portfolio or alternative assessment; or by the recommendation of teacher, principal, or parent. Additionally, the NCSL lists eight states that allow (but do not require) retention: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Such exemptions and recommendations demonstrate that even at the state level, policymakers understand that retaining non-proficient readers is not always the right answer.

In 2013, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a follow-up report titled “Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third-Grade Reading” that cautioned against using either passive social promotion or mandatory grade retention as a standalone solution. Instead, the foundation discussed the important role of ongoing support and intervention for struggling readers, stating, “Most important, we know that intervention programs for third-graders who are at risk of being retained can substantially increase their academic achievement.”

Some states are already incorporating these additional interventions and supports into their policies, and the report pointed to Colorado's “smart promotion” policy as a good example. From kindergarten through third grade, struggling readers in the state are required to receive personalized support—including an academic improvement plan, supplemental instruction, and a home reading program—and retention for struggling third-graders is only recommended after an individual assessment and consultation with family and school staff.

Regardless of a state’s official policy on grade-level retention, educators and families know the importance of each student’s personal journey and understand that supporting literacy development in the early years puts students on track to read proficiently by the end of the third grade. For readers who are still struggling by this benchmark, ongoing school and community support will be needed regardless of whether they are promoted with their peers or retained. While the “best” course of action continues to be a matter of debate, families, educators, and school staff can work together to ensure each student has the individual support they need.

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