Should Struggling Readers be Held Back? More and More States are Saying Yes

The headline from a recent National Public Radio report made a stark declaration: “States Are Ratcheting Up Reading Expectations For 3rd-Graders.” Although the phrase “ratcheting up” may sound harsh, it seems well placed in this regard, given that the report addresses an ongoing, nettlesome issue in education—namely, what to do about students who are in danger of finishing third grade without sufficient reading skills.

According to reporter Alexandra Starr, policymakers in a growing number of states are implementing mandatory grade-retention policies for third-graders who “perform poorly on reading tests.” Starr traced the current push for retention to Florida, where the policy was included by former governor Jeb Bush as part of a multifaceted approach to education reform in 2002. So far, 19 other states have adopted similar laws.

A Tampa Bay Times article reported that as of 2019, 20% of Florida’s third-graders were at risk of being held back because they scored below grade level on the state’s annual language arts exam. Not all who struggle are subject to the retention policy, however; students who have special needs or are new to the country can be exempted from the law.

At the heart of the policy is the following logic: If students cannot read well, then they should not move forward in their education. After all, as students get older, the learning-to-read phase typically flips to more of a reading-to-learn framework within which students are required to process and work with increasing amounts of academic content. Under this framework, those who can’t keep up risk falling further behind their peers.

With sources such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation warning that students who lack sufficient reading skills by the fourth grade have a far greater chance of not graduating from high school on time or at all, many observers insist that early literacy instruction and interventions are crucial. As Christine A. Samuels phrased it in a post for the online news source Education Week, “The stakes are clear: Studies have shown that absent effective intervention, children who read significantly below grade level by third grade continue to struggle in school.” Clearly, there is significant cause for concern.

The question, then, is not whether struggling readers should receive help as soon as possible, but whether mandatory retention for third-graders is an “effective intervention.” Here is a look at some of the varying opinions on the matter, which is seen by some as a damaging, draconian move and by others as a lifeline for struggling students.

Pro: The possibility of retention can prompt action

Retention is a drastic measure that can cause people to sit up and take notice. As Eric Robelen put it in a piece for Education Week, “a key goal of [retention] policies is to place a greater focus—and apply some extra pressure—to make sure schools intervene early with struggling readers.” This extra pressure can result in some worthy action items, including the following detailed by Andrew M.I. Lee on the special education advocacy site

  • Early literacy screenings paired with “extra services to help young kids read”

  • An expanded use of “evidence-based reading programs,” including phonics and multisensory instruction

  • More information for parents, including earlier warnings about their child’s potential struggles with reading

According to Lee, “These changes may give parents more opportunities to help their kids learn to read well before retention becomes an issue.” Furthermore, Lee noted that some states with retention mandates require schools to not just hold struggling students back, but also provide “intensive intervention during the repeated year” to boost these learners' chances of success.

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Con: Retention may do more harm than good

Requiring a student to repeat a grade because of a low score on a standardized test is a controversial course of action that some fear could deeply impact a student’s self-esteem, thus furthering a damaging failure narrative. Others question whether a single score on an annual, high-stakes exam should determine whether students can move on with their peers; indeed, it was this viewpoint that prompted a group of parents in Florida to file a lawsuit against the state’s retention policy, although the policy was ultimately upheld by the courts.

Moreover, evidence suggests that retention itself does not typically help students—rather, the benefit lies in the influx of resources that can accompany retention. Examples of further actions that may be triggered by retention include summer reading programs, careful progress monitoring, and efforts to pair students with strong teachers, all of which could still be put in place if the student is promoted to the next grade.

There's also the matter of cost to consider, as education professor David Berliner pointed out that money put toward paying for an extra year of schooling could be better used to provide extra support and intervention.

Evaluating the third-grade benchmark

More to the point, how valid is the third-grade reading benchmark anyway? For some, the answer is "Not at all." In an article published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, literacy experts Bonnie Houck and Kari Ross argued that reading instruction does not—and should not—end in third grade, and that the idea of the ensuing grades being all about “reading to learn” rather than continuing to learn how to read is little more than a myth:

We assert that reading proficiency develops over a lifetime. Throughout students' academic careers, learning to read and reading to learn is the responsibility of all teachers and must occur simultaneously and continually—all day, every day—to adequately prepare students for the demands of college and the workplace. As students move through their educational journey, they develop reading knowledge, skills, and habits, while continuing to build their prior knowledge and expand their vocabulary, which promotes reading proficiency.

Now is the crucial time to change our practices and positively influence student achievement. It is our responsibility as educators to foster and develop reading, both in learning to read and applying that knowledge in reading to learn, for all students. Leaving the myth of "learning to read and reading to learn" in the past and moving forward with that commitment to continual learning will promote the greatest potential for reading proficiency in the 21st century.

If grade retention is the only way for students to get the support and intervention they need, then holding them back may be a good move. However, if the mere threat of retention is all that's needed to prompt increased attention to the development of literacy skills in all students, then perhaps this is good enough.


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