Lawmakers in multiple states are considering legislation that would mandate holding back third-grade students who cannot pass state literacy tests.
In Iowa, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Colorado, legislatures are debating bills that would stop social promotion for third-graders. Many of these bills, like Florida’s current system, would also increase literacy funding and teaching requirements for grades K-3.
“There’s nothing more cruel to children than to promote them without the ability to do grade-level work,” said Matthew Ladner, director of policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Illiteracy Linked to Dropping Out
All the third-grade retention measures are part of larger reform packages lawmakers are pushing in response to dismal elementary-school literacy. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported one-third of U.S. fourth-graders scored below basic reading ability in 2011.
“We must do a better job of helping children learn to read. It’s unacceptable that nearly a fourth of our third-graders are not proficient in reading,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in proposing the requirement.
A 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation links third-grade illiteracy to dropping out of high school.
“Results of a longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 students find that those who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers,” the report said. “For the worst readers, those who couldn’t master even the basic skills by third grade, the rate is nearly six times greater.”
‘Parent Involvement Generator’
Florida education reforms from the early 2000s set the pattern for the new measures.
“The research on the policy shows that it was successful for the kids that were retained,” Ladner said. “Even more importantly, [research shows] the dramatic affect of the policy in overall literacy skills for all students.”
In 1998, Florida students had the fifth-lowest 4th-grade scores on the NAEP reading exam. By 2007, scores had rocketed to 8th highest in the country. Overall student achievement also increased among poor, Hispanic, and black students, Ladner notes.
A key component of third-grade retention policy is how it influences parental involvement, he said. Faced with having their child repeat a grade, even formerly passive parents became involved.
“It’s a parental involvement generator,” said Ladner. “It provides accountability not just for schools but also for parents.”
Retention Policies Under Fire
Still, Florida’s policies have their critics. Some claim retention damages students’ self-esteem. Ladner, however, says promoting illiterate students is ultimately far more detrimental to self-esteem because such students cannot read difficult texts and know their future is limited.
“The status quo is a lot easier on adults. It’s easier to pass these students through. You never have to confront angry parents. You never have to tell them the bitter truth,” he said. “Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing favors.”
Madhabi Chatterji of Columbia University disagrees, arguing the statistics presented to support third-grade retention are methodologically unsound.
“By the time those retained were in fourth grade, they were older than other kids in fourth grade. The age effect inflated test scores in the following year,” said Chatterji. “So, Florida's reading gains ... don't automatically mean that the package of reforms works.”
Responding to Critics
But if the age effect was responsible for Florida’s NAEP score improvement, Florida’s NAEP score would have dropped instead of soaring, because fewer older students would take the fourth grade exam since they were still in third grade, Ladner responded.
Other numbers Ladner presents also contradict Chatterji’s claims. Not only have NAEP scores increased in Florida, third-grade students score higher on the state test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). 
“Since this policy was put in place, the percentage of students who test [the lowest possible score] on the 3rd grade reading test dropped by 41 percent,” Ladner said. “This is a dramatic improvement. As the percentage of kids scoring so profoundly low [has dropped], so too has percentage of kids being retained. [Since the reforms were enacted] retentions dropped by 50 percent.”
“Double Jeopardy: How Poverty & Third-Grade Reading Skills Influence High School Graduation,” Annie E. Casey Foundation: http://fcd-us.org/sites/default/files/DoubleJeopardyReport.pdf 
“Demography as Destiny?” Matthew Ladner, Education Next: http://educationnext.org/demography-as-destiny-2/ 
Image by sizumaru .