During the pandemic, states paused policies requiring third grade retention for students who have not attained reading proficiency on high-stakes, state reading exams. According to EdWeek, these controversial policies are back but should they be permanently retired?
The idea is that 3rd grade is a pivotal time for literacy instruction: After that year, reading demands across subjects get a lot bigger. Kids are expected to be able to read word problems in math, directions in science, primary sources in social studies.
Research has borne out that it’s harder for students to succeed if they’re not proficient by 3rd grade. One landmark study found that students who couldn’t read on grade level by then were four times less likely to graduate high school on time than their peers who could.
But whether requiring struggling students to repeat that 3rd grade year will lead to better results is a different and more complicated question. Research findings on the policy are mixed, and have to be weighed against the negative social and emotional consequences of holding students back a grade. Many studies show only short-term academic gains, while others demonstrate greater likelihood of adverse outcomes like bullying.
Many states require evidence-based reading instruction (“the science of reading”) and use the state tests as the measurement of those instructional practices. But- as EdWeek points out, there is not a lot of research or evidence to back up mandatory retention policies and a closer examination of these policies is warranted.
“Though we might see them together in legislation, the science of reading has a very strong evidence base, and retention policies don’t,” Allison Socol, the vice president of P-12 policy, practice, and research for The Education Trust.
“I’m very glad to see a growing conversation about making sure that all students have strong foundational skills early on, because we know how important that is,” she said. “But the research is pretty clear that, particularly for students of color and other underrepresented student groups, that retention in the long run isn’t effective—and in fact can be harmful.”
In fact, research shows retention’s academic gains have a brief time horizon and fade quickly over time. Behavior issues associated with retention may also play a harmful role.
Researchers have also found negative consequences for students who repeat an elementary grade—students who are held back are more likely to be suspended in the next few years afterward, and students who are old for their grade are more likely to be bullied or exhibit bullying behaviors. There’s an equity concern too: Black and Latino students are consistently more likely to be retained than white students.
Certain studies show that there may be benefits with retention policies but only when states required schools to develop reading support plans for the retained students and to place those students with a highly effective teacher. This begs the question- was the benefit caused by the extra year or from the individualized supports the student received?
The message resonates with Hiller Spires, a professor emerita of literacy and technology at North Carolina State’s College of Education…“If you just keep a kid back, and there are no customized supports, whatever happened that didn’t make a kid successful is going to happen again,” Spires said.
North Carolina’s new reading law, passed in 2021, requires districts to adopt more detailed intervention plans for struggling students. This, along with state-provided training for teachers and reading specialists in each district could make retention more effective, Spires said.
“I would be optimistic, but at the same time, I don’t think that retention is the answer,” she said, citing the possibility of unintended consequences like emotional difficulties and low self-esteem.
In the end, it’s hard to pull apart the factors that led to improved achievement. Take a 2019 study, where English learners in Florida saw big gains after 3rd grade retention. Those retained students received at least 90 minutes of daily, targeted reading instruction from high-performing teachers.
“The question that this study raises for me is, was it being held back, or was it the targeted reading intervention?” asked Socol of EdTrust.