More states push retention of struggling readers

Flunked, retained, held back.
Associated Press
Feb 6, 2013


Whatever you call it, increasing numbers of states are not promoting students who are struggling to read at the end of third grade.

Thirty-two states have passed legislation designed to improve third-grade literacy, according to the Education Commission of the States. Retention is part of the policies in 14 states, with some offering more leeway than others.

"Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can't read is irresponsible — and cruel," said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in announcing in his recent State of the State address that third-graders should demonstrate an ability to read before being promoted. He also proposed a $12 million program for improving third-graders' reading skills.

Backers say retention policies put pressure on teachers and parents to make sure children succeed.

But opponents say students fare better if they're promoted and offered extra help. They say holding students back does nothing to address the underlying problems that caused them to struggle and is the single biggest school drop-out predictor. Students who've been retained have a two-fold increased risk of dropping out compared to students with similar academic struggles who weren't retained, said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Human Capital Research Collaborative, citing studies of students in Chicago and Baltimore.

Retention policies were tried out in large city districts but in recent years have been scaled back or dropped in places like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Los Angeles district spokeswoman Monica Carazo said her school system studied retention and determined that "research did not show it as an effective practice."

Ending so-called social promotion was one of Jeb Bush's education reforms when he was governor of Florida, and his nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education began touting the reform package after it started in 2008.

"I think reform-minded education chiefs and state legislatures and governors are looking for something to do to help kids be successful and to do that they need policies that aren't the same old, same old," said Mary Laura Bragg, the foundation's director of state policy implementation.

Although the number isn't tracked nationally, some national representative studies show that about one-fifth of eighth graders have been retained at least once, said Reynolds, who has studied retention. He said there is wide variation among school districts, with some in urban areas reporting retention rates as high as 40 percent.

Because students shift away from learning to read in the early grades to reading to learn in the upper elementary grades, most state-mandated retention policies make third grade the make-or-break year. Such policies also give struggling students another year of instruction before they take a test as fourth-graders used to compare the educational performance of states and nations, called the National Assessment of Education Progress.

"I apologize to the rest of the country," said Melissa Erickson, of Fund Education Now, a Florida parent advocacy group, of the spread of her state's reforms. She said Florida's NAEP scores had risen but noted that the test takers most likely to struggle were now a year older.

"Is the goal to manipulate data so the state looks better or is the goal to help kids?"

In Florida, where the policy is a decade old, reading is generally measured by performance on a state-administered standardized test. Exemptions also are allowed for some students, like those who do well on an alternative test or whose teachers put together a portfolio showing they can read at grade level.

Because struggling Florida students can be held back up to two times, Megan Allen has students as old as 13 in her fifth-grade class in Tampa, Fla. Some of the younger ones still talk about whether or not Santa is real and Disney movies. Among their twice-retained classmates, Allen, the Florida Teacher of the Year in 2010, has confiscated sex notes.

"I think it is defeating for them," she said of the retained students. "These are students who are already frustrated and instead of having laws that maybe offer them supports and solutions, we have laws that are more focused on the stick than the carrot."

The fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute studied Florida's policy and found retained students made larger gains than students who weren't retained.

But critics like Shane Jimerson, a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said the study doesn't monitor the students' performance long enough. He said researchers have long known that retained students experience an initial academic boost but that the benefits fade.

One of the states where the Bush-backed Foundation for Excellence in Education has been involved in legislation is Colorado, where Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a law in May that mandates extra help for struggling young students and bars those considered far behind on reading from advancing to fourth grade without their superintendent's permission. One year earlier, Oklahoma passed a law that requires third-grade students to demonstrate proficiency in reading before advancing to fourth grade. Schools in both states are putting programs in place to help struggling students in advance of the retention piece taking effect in the 2013-2014 school year.

In Indiana, this is the first year third-graders had to pass a state test to move onto fourth-grade-level reading instruction. Initially, 16 percent of third-graders failed the test and had a chance to retake it over the summer. The final statewide results haven't been released, said Stephanie Sample, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education.

She said some schools are retaining students while others are promoting them to fourth grade and offering them special reading instruction to bring them up to grade level.

"We just want to make sure the kids aren't passed along before they are ready to succeed," she said.

The economy could be part of the reason the reform is gaining traction, suggested Reynolds. He said the main cost of retention — another year of education if the student doesn't drop out — is years away.

"It's a way to say to the public that we have tough standards in our school," said Reynolds, who says early childhood programs have better outcomes. "And because states and districts are in a financial crisis in many respects, there is no high priority placed on programs or practices that are going to have a significant cost initially."

But Bragg, who was tasked with implementing Florida's policy after its passage, said she knows what she saw happen in her state.

"That hard line in the sand of retention for third-graders moved schools in a way they had not been moved before," she said. "I don't understand why it takes the threat of something like that to do what you should be doing all along, but it worked. What I saw was a change in human behavior when a policy is put in place that forced people to do what they are supposed to be doing."





Education of a child is a collaboration between parents and teachers. Teachers can not do it all without assistance at home. Children with supportive parents will succeed. Children with no home support will struggle.

You can throw all the money you want at this situation from an educational standpoint and not change a thing.

It comes down to personal responsibility of parents to educate their children.




Personal responsibility is a bad term this day and age, They promote dependency and Need the newer generations to be stupid to keep the status quo going.


Randy, Who is "they"?


Look no further than those that approve the text books and set the curriculum.

2cents's picture

Oh! So being tough like they were on us in the 60's on us may seem to really work DA! Put the paddles back on the wall by the door and use them again, it appears that the soft handed time out approach of the last three decades failed our kids miserably!

While you’re at it, you better start restocking the industrial arts rooms so a few kids “really know how” to turn a screwdriver handle when they graduate from high school or there will be nobody left of the older generation to show them what to do with it!

Just saying!

Kottage Kat

I was/am blessed
Mom was an avid reader
Read classics before I was in high school
No TV NO internet
read 3-4 books a week
And did when I worked
Reading and spelling go hand in hand
If u can spell u can read
even dyslexics can be taught


Eye no jest about all thier iz. Beecoz eye'ved hadd en e-z live. It really is about parents & children first. Sadly the aforementioned term is almost always singular instead of plural. Schools can never be parents.


These same children that cannot read, can tell you every postition on the baseball field or soccer field. These same children can tell you how to clear level 15 and kill the ogre. These same children can tell you every actor in every movie from the last 2 years. It is about PARENTS taking responsibility for their own kids. Homework BEFORE sports, games, tv. Seems now adays parents are more worried about their kid making the soccer team and getting to practice or he cant play this weekend than worrying about if the kid studied for the reading test on friday!


Is Phonics still taught?

I remember a while ago when the "big brains" came up with the "whole word" method and messed up reading scores for yrs.


In most places the answer is no to phonics, time must be spent on important test items. So spake the STATE.

Not to split hairs, Contango, it was "whole language." The basic concept wasn't bad, but, they eliminated things that should have been re-introduced earlier as the student became developmentally ready for it. Phonics, for example.


"Whole word, also known as 'Sight Word' and 'Look and Say',"


Thank you for the link as it shows that whole word was a major component of the whole language movement. As time went on the deficiencies of whole language were exposed which led to the "Four Blocks of Literacy" approach which resulted in sight words being presented as "word walls." In whole language correct spelling often took a back seat since the crux was more about what the student was trying to convey conceptually. Spelling was corrected in subsequent revisions.

I am not taking exception with your point. The terms "whole word" and "whole language" were often used interchangeably. My particular slant is that whole language was the broad umbrella under which components like whole word were housed. If others invert the terms but retain the fundamental concepts it works for me. Coke/Pepsi.


To paraphrase Shakespeare: A skunk by any other name still stinks.

The point: Unfortunately for many students, parents were taught Phonics and had difficulty helping their children practice reading skills when they were taught this lunkheaded concept.


Are they taking into account the number of children that fall through the cracks because they aren't tested for learning disabilities and other special needs or because they barely miss the mark to qualify for special ed services? It's not all about bad parenting or bad teachers. A child with an IQ of 85 is going to struggle greatly and may not qualify for special ed.

2cents's picture

When they bring home D & F grades, someone should see. I went to summer school every year during grade school because I stunk at math. And yes I walked home after that Saturday morning class, 3 miles about an hour walk. All else was on hold until I finished and had approved grades to do so.


What does that have to do with having a learning disability, autism, or other disability that may not be diagnosed? Someone could have D's and F's for a number of reasons, everything from something as simple as not doing homework to something more complex like dyslexia. Sometimes school districts don't like to have to evaluate kids for special ed because it costs so much money.

2cents's picture

The low grades should show something. We also had hearing and vision tests done right in school to see if there were issues. It seems like a lot of places just pass kids through, and I bet is because they do not want to deal with the headache. I am not saying teachers do not care but I bet they have a tough battle when dealing with all the newer regulations, thanks to the ACLU. One cannot even blink with things like HIPPA and $$ will not solve that!


Kids still have their hearing and vision tested. I asked. They are not provided with glasses or hearing aids.

Listening to my teacher neighbor talk...
Kids do get Ds and Fs, still parents don't return calls or show up for conferences.
It seems that the biggest problem is a the lack of motivation to work hard.

Maybe there is something to the idea in hold back some students. I remember being worried about being retained--Did I pass? Maybe there has to be accountability to motive.

That being said. It can't be a one size fits all requirement.


My children learned both phonics and sight words (aka whole language) in elementary school. Since many words in our language are not phonetically correct, there is some validity to whole language concepts.

BW1's picture

Whole Language was first conceived by early 20th century socialists like Thomas Dewey, who believed that, since reading was a solitary activity, it didn't promote collectivism, and hence, they didn't want people to be good at it.

Truth or Fiction

Hey, Donutshopguy. Right on! Another unfunded requirement. Who is going to pay for the extra teachers needed to handle the larger third grades after next year - not the STATE! It will be your local school district. I'll make a believer of you yet.


Truth, larger third grade classes mean smaller fourth grade classes, but I don't imagine the number will be large enough to cause an issue. And I thought I read funding from the state would be provided for intervention.

Truth or Fiction

Justme. Read the statute and define funding. I can say I will give you $25 a student and I'm funding it never mind it costs me $500 per student. As more and more third graders fail, the funnel gets fuller requiring more teachers with all the bells and whistles modern academia can think up. May not happen in one year, maybe not the second year, but its coming. It's kind of like the laundry detergent ads that say new and improved but it still cleans the same way as the old detergent. Same cleaner - new look.


I doubt they are only providing $25 a student, although I get your point. The idea is that fewer and fewer third graders will fail, not more and more. Time will tell. Change is hard.


as a dyslexic, I was held back 2 times in elementary school. My teacher hollered, humiliated,and punished me, I learned to be shy and anxious and fearful[this was in the early 60's] My parents were indifferent. Caring parents, extra help in reading and math , a decent teacher would have made all the difference. By the way the kids that got paddled were the ones the teacher hated, children of the welloff or hands on aggressive parents never got paddled. My fellow classmate had our teacher write on him over and over in white chalk[ he was black]. It all adds up ,parents[guardians] be agressive, make sure your children get all the assistance they need.


Some individuals cannot learn. Is it reasonable to spend the most money and effort on the least promising ?


rjk I disagree. Unless you have a serious learning disability (and please, don't you think there will be exceptions for the kids with severe autism or downs syndrome?) every child is capable of learning to read. My kids had requirements to read a certain number of minutes at home each day when they were that age. Would they have done that if I hadn't sat down with them and made them? No. This will hold parents, teachers and children accountable.