Debate over holding back third graders roils state legislatures

By: - May 7, 2023 10:00 am
Fourth graders study in a view through a classroom window.

Fourth graders study in a view through a classroom window. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Should third graders who don’t read well enough to pass a standardized test repeat their grade? That question is roiling states, with some choosing to keep the practice, some to modify it and others to scrap it.

Most states require students to take standardized tests that measure progress in reading and math in the third grade. Concerns over pandemic learning losses led some states to suspend such retentions, but now that schools are back to in-person learning, the controversy over whether to hold kids back has heated up in state legislatures.

Michigan, for example, enacted a law this year to end the retention of third graders, no matter their score on a standardized reading test. Instead, Michigan schools will employ interventions including tutoring, extra instruction and enrichment to help those students improve. The change came after a study showed a disproportionate number of minority and economically disadvantaged students were receiving low scores, leading critics to charge that the retentions were discriminatory.

By contrast, Tennessee modified, but didn’t eliminate, its third-grade retention requirement in response to parents who complained that too many kids would be held back. State lawmakers approved legislation, to take effect next school year, that would allow schools to consider another test when determining retention, provide state-funded tutors for kids with reading deficiencies and track summer school and retention data. Republican Gov. Bill Lee is expected to sign it into law.

But in Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law creating a new reading requirement that could result in many students repeating third grade if they don’t meet the threshold. It also includes funds for literacy coaches and grants for families to hire reading tutors.

The measure was part of a sweeping education bill, championed by Sanders, that also increases teacher salaries and allocates private school vouchers for some families.

At least 17 states and the District of Columbia require third graders to repeat the year if they don’t meet certain test scores, although many have “good cause” exemptions for students who are just learning English or who perform well on alternative evaluations, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization that tracks state education policies.

Third grade is the pivot point for reading, according to studies and several experts interviewed by Stateline, as it is the break point between learning to read and reading to learn, which usually begins to happen in the fourth grade.

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Repeating third grade allows students to come into fourth grade able to read and accomplish needed tasks, said Casey Taylor, the early literacy policy director for ExcelinEd, a nonprofit that supports retaining kids if they don’t meet reading standards. “It’s not just retention for retention’s sake; it’s retention for learning’s sake.”

Third grade instructors are trained in reading interventions that can help students catch up, Taylor said, while fourth grade teachers may focus more on the ability of students to absorb information gleaned through reading.

She pointed to a working paper analyzing Mississippi schools published this year that found that between 2013 — when the state’s third-grade retention program began — and 2019, average fourth grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test increased by 10 points in Mississippi, more than any other state, while the national average declined by a point.

But in Michigan, officials felt the policy wasn’t producing the desired results. A Michigan State University report showed nearly 6% of the third grade students tested in the 2020-21 school year could be held back based on their scores on a standardized state test. Black students were disproportionately more likely to be eligible for retention based on their test scores than their Asian, Hispanic or White peers.

The data also showed that students flagged for retention are more likely to be economically disadvantaged, have disabilities, attend an urban school or have participated in remote learning the year prior.

The report’s results are part of what led the legislature to scrap the retention policy, according to the bill’s sponsor, Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat and a former teacher. She suggested that a test score was not a good way to select students for retention. “Educators know that kids develop at different ages,” she said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t take into account developmental ages, parental input and the stigmatization about that [retention].”

Educators know that kids develop at different ages.

– Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki

A 2017 National Institutes of Health study found that while holding a third grader back may help that student catch up in reading, it also “increases the odds that a student will drop out of school before obtaining a high school diploma.”

Polehanki, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the Michigan education law provides help for students who might need more assistance in fourth grade. It includes “literacy coaching, a ‘read at home’ plan and all kinds of support,” she said.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fiscal 2024 budget proposal, now under consideration by the legislature, calls for $442.4 million for literacy grants and literacy coaches and $300 million for the “MI Kids Back on Track” tutoring program to help make up for pandemic losses.

The question of retention for kids who fail tests probably was exacerbated by the pandemic, said Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

But he said the research on whether retention works “is not entirely consistent … because of the fact that implementation matters so much.”

He said there are concerns about research showing that the retained students “separate from peers, are stigmatized and have reduced engagement in school.” He cited studies that show retention contributes to eventually dropping out of school.

Nevertheless, he said, “early retention can be helpful. Students don’t generally catch up, but they get further than they were. The most successful method of catching kids up quickly is high dosage tutoring, which is very expensive, and few districts can afford it.”


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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International. She also has worked as a freelancer for the Washington Post, the Fiscal Times, Governing, Kiplinger and AARP Bulletin. She has written three books, including "John McCain: American Maverick," and is at work on a fourth. She is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Povich received the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress for her work on how the personal health care stories of members of Congress affect policy. She is a past president of the Washington Press Club Foundation, which helps young women and minorities excel in the field of journalism through internships in Washington, D.C. A native of Bath, Maine, Povich graduated from Cornell University and holds a Master's Certificate in Multimedia Journalism from the University of Maryland.