This latest column focuses on 3rd grade retention policies gaining momentum across the country. Previous installments of The 50 States of Education Policy, along with an interactive map that breaks down policies in each state, can be found here.
This coming school year, a 2016 Michigan law mandating retention for 3rd graders reading below proficiency level will go into effect. The state will join 17 others that have such such legislation, including Nevada, which just began implementing its new policy in July.
First introduced in California in 1998, mandatory retention laws have recently gained popularity as a strategy to improve literacy and lower drop-out rates for struggling readers before the end of 3rd grade.
Similar policies were then adopted in Florida by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002 as part of a broader packet of reforms, and have since spread to states across the U.S. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia require retention for students reading below proficiency by the time they complete 3rd grade. Several other states, including Texas, New Jersey and Maryland, allow retention but do not require it.
In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers in New Mexico attempted to pass a bill that would hold back students, but the measure failed for the eighth consecutive year after state Democrats raised questions about the lack of additional funding. Lawmakers in Nebraska, another state to propose retention policies, failed to pass Legislative Bill 651 after opponents of the measure testified against it in the Education Committee hearing.
The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), the largest public school system in the nation, implemented similar policies for 3rd graders in the 2003-04 school year, and for 5th and 7th graders in subsequent years. In 1997, Chicago Public Schools also used retention for 3rd, 6th and 8th graders.
But the Chicago district recently tweaked its policies to allow more students to pass assessments after receiving criticism for doing more harm than good when studies showed that the city’s nine-year attempt to end social promotion — or advancing students to the next grade level regardless of skill mastery — had significantly increased special education placements and led to higher high school dropout rates.
Multiple studies and reports point to the critical importance of strong reading skills by the time students enter 4th grade, when they need to acquire information from higher-level texts. Low-income students who cannot read proficiently by this time are at risk for dropping out later in school and for joining the nation’s least-skilled and lowest-earning citizens.
In 2017, 37% of all U.S. 4th graders were reading at or above proficiency level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and scores have remained relatively flat. Students of color and low-income students are disproportionately at risk for falling behind. According to the NAEP, only 20% of African American and Native American/Alaska Native, and only 23% of Hispanic 4th graders, scored at or above proficiency. And in 2017, only 22% of NSLP eligible students were at or above proficiency level in 4th grade.
When these students reach 4th grade, they can fall even further behind. But some experts say states aren't helping them by putting policies in place that hold students back.
While short-term effects of the Florida policy are positive, long-term outcomes haven't been as promising. An early evaluation of the practice from the American Education Finance Association showed that in the first two years following retention, retained students slightly outperformed students who were socially promoted.
However, these gains may diminish overtime and actually lead to worse outcomes outcomes for students. In 2013, another analysis of Florida’s retention policies showed “no definitive evidence that test-based retention in early grades is beneficial for students in the long run.”
For NYCDOE, a 2018 RAND Corp. analysis suggested that middle school students were more likely to drop out following retention and that retention increased special education placement.
Across the board, retention can increase the likelihood of a student dropping out of school, and many educators and organizations have criticized the growing policies for this reason.
The National Council of Teachers of English says that the laws are “ill-advised” and perpetuate a “cycle of punishment” that disproportionately affects students of color, impoverished children, English language learners and special needs students.
And Kathy N. Headley, the president of the Board of Directors for the International Literacy Association, pointed out that the retention of 3rd graders without providing the support necessary for educators and students is meaningless.
“The careful consideration of retention in 3rd grade hinges on the intensive learning support that the student receives,” Headley said in an email to Education Dive. “If retention is just a repeat of 3rd grade, with no changes instructionally, what has been accomplished?”