Recruitment & Retention

More States Retaining Struggling 3rd Graders

March 27, 2012 10 min read
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Some families in Tulsa, Okla., recently received a brochure that surely grabbed their attention. The title? “Will your child pass third grade?”

Produced by the 15,000-student Union district, the handout explains the state’s pending reading requirements for students to advance to the 4th grade. It also outlines what the district is doing to help students read and offers tips for what parents can do at home.

Oklahoma is one of several states that recently adopted new reading policies that—with limited exceptions—call for 3rd graders to be held back if they flunk a state standardized test.

Iowa lawmakers are debating an education package from Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, that would do the same. The retention measure is part of a recently approved House bill, but not in a version passed by the Senate education committee. In New Mexico, a plan backed by GOP Gov. Susan Martinez passed the House this year but died in the Senate.

All the plans appear to take a page from the playbook in Florida, where a policy to end the social promotion of 3rd graders was enacted under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Supporters say that retention is intended as a last resort, and that a key goal of the policies is to place a greater focus—and apply some extra pressure—to make sure schools intervene early with struggling readers. Without an adequate ability to read, they say, children are ill-equipped to learn across disciplines and may never catch up.

But critics say that it’s misguided to base a promotion decision on a standardized-test score, and that holding a child back may do more harm than good. They also express concern over whether states will provide the money to help districts succeed with students deficient in reading, especially in a time of tight budgets.

In fact, Texas’ education commissioner recently signaled that he might suspend his state’s retention policy, which targets 5th and 8th graders, if sufficient state aid for interventions is not restored.

'Good Cause' Exemptions

Florida’s 3rd grade retention policy, launched in 2002-03, has become a model picked up by several other states, with some modifications. In general, 3rd graders who score at the lowest of five levels on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading must be retained. However, there are six “good-cause exemptions.”

Alternative Exam
Students who show an acceptable level of performance on an alternative standardized reading test approved by the state board of education.

Students who show through a teacher-developed portfolio that they can read on grade level. The materials included must show that the student has mastered the state standards assessed by the grade 3 FCAT in reading.

Previously Retained For Two Years
Students who have received intensive reading remediation for two or more years but still have a reading deficiency and have already been retained at the K-3 level for a total of two years.

English-Language Learners
Students with less than two years of instruction in a language-learning program.

Special Education
• Students with disabilities whose individual education plans show it is not appropriate for them to take the FCAT.
• Students with disabilities who take the FCAT and have received intensive reading remediation for more than two years but still show a reading deficiency and were previously retained at one or more prior grade levels.

SOURCES: Education Week; Florida Department of Education

Kathy L. Dodd, an assistant superintendent for the Union district, which covers southeast Tulsa and a portion of Broken Arrow, counts herself among the skeptics of Oklahoma’s new policy, which was backed by Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican.

But as the date of the mandate for 3rd graders—the 2013-14 school year—gets closer, her district has begun reaching out to families of kindergartners and 1st graders to be sure they understand what’s at stake.

“We’re having a lot of conversations with parents,” Ms. Dodd said, “and we’ve created a brochure that outlines for parents how they can begin preparing for this expectation.”

Following Florida

State retention policies tied to standardized-test scores are not new, though the design varies.

Texas and Louisiana, for instance, target multiple grade levels and both reading and math achievement. Some large urban districts, including New York City and Chicago, also have retention policies tied at least in part to standardized tests.

But some states are now pursuing approaches inspired by Florida’s policy, which took effect in the 2002-03 school year.

That law requires 3rd graders who score at Level 1, the lowest of five levels on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, to be retained. There are exemptions, however, including for certain students with disabilities and English-language learners. In addition, students may demonstrate their readiness for 4th grade through a portfolio or an alternative assessment. Also, a student may retake the FCAT in reading.

Ending social promotion is just one dimension of the Florida policy, said Jaryn A. Emhof, the director of state initiatives and communications for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group led by former Gov. Bush, a Republican, that promotes Florida-style policies in other states.

“Even though social promotion gets the most attention, it covers a lot beyond [that],” she said of Florida’s approach.

Ms. Emhof notes an emphasis on early identification and intervention for struggling readers, as well as summer reading camps and mechanisms to ensure retained students don’t get the same experience twice. In fact, Florida requires retained 3rd graders to get daily reading blocks of at least 90 minutes and to be assigned what the state calls a “high performing” teacher the next year. Still, Ms. Emhof argues that the retention provision for 3rd graders is a crucial ingredient.

“It’s in human nature,” she said. “When you know there’s a deadline, it forces behavior and attitude change and refocuses everything. ... That line in the sand, so to speak, is really a catalyst.”

But the policy is still controversial among Florida educators.

“After 10 years, I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s good for kids,” said Doug A. Whittaker, the superintendent of the 16,200-student Charlotte County school district in southwest Florida. “I don’t care how the adults frame it: The people making those decisions forget what it’s like to be 8 years old.”

Mr. Whittaker said he’s not opposed to holding students back, but said such action should not be driven by a test score. “It really should be a team of people that make the decision, including the parents,” he said.

Margaret A. Smith, the superintendent of Florida’s 62,000-student Volusia County district, said she would prefer not to have the policy, but acknowledged that it has some value.

“On the positive side, it has helped to focus on the significance of students’ being able to read well to be successful in all subjects,” she said. “We’ve made the best of it.”

The number of retentions of Florida 3rd graders more than quadrupled in the policy’s first year, from 6,400 to 27,700. But the number has steadily declined. In 2009-10, the most recent year for which data were available, the number was 12,200, or about 6 percent of 3rd graders.

Despite the decline, a recent federal report shows that Florida students represented one-third of all 3rd graders retained in a nationwide data set. (“Data Show Retention Disparities,” March 7, 2012.)

Ms. Emhof points to state data showing that far fewer students now score at the lowest level on the FCAT in reading, dropping from 27 percent in 2001-02 to 16 percent in 2010-11. But the figure has been stuck at about 16 percent for several years.

The state has posted big reading gains on the 4th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2002. Yet in 8th grade, the latest NAEP reading scores are about the same as in 2002, in keeping with the national trend.

Dueling Findings

Most experts agree that retention alone can lead to academic difficulties for students, including a greater likelihood of dropping out of school. And yet, some recent research suggests that a carefully crafted retention policy, coupled with extra support for those held back, may improve achievement.

A series of studies on the Florida policy show promising results. The latest installment, to be published next summer in the journal Education Finance and Policy, finds the bundle of interventions—from retention to summer school and placing retained students with a high-performing teacher—have a “statistically significant and substantial positive effect on student achievement in math, reading, and science in the years immediately following the treatment.”

Although the forthcoming study finds that the benefit “dissipates” over time, co-author Marcus A. Winters, an assistant education professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says it remains robust into 7th grade, the last year examined to date.

“The early effects are so very large that by the time we get to 7th grade, we are still talking about not just a significant effect but a really meaningful one,” said Mr. Winters, who also is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, a New York City-based think tank that promotes free-market principles.

However, a 2004 study of Chicago’s retention policy that used a similar research technique to the Florida study found no academic benefits two years later for retained 3rd graders and diminished academic progress for 6th graders.

A number of states have recently enacted retention policies, including Oklahoma, where the state education department this month adopted final rules. The policy applies to students who score “unsatisfactory” on the state reading test. Students may qualify for one of several “good-cause exemptions,” largely modeled on the Florida policy, or for midyear promotion if they improve sufficiently.

“If our children are not able to read at grade-appropriate levels,” Gov. Fallin said when signing the measure into law last year, “they can’t learn the math, the science, the social studies as they ... go through the education system.”

But Ms. Dodd from Oklahoma’s Union district said she worries about the policy’s impact. “Retaining students in the 3rd grade based on a multiple-choice test ... is more dangerous than the practice of social promotion,” she said. “Students need multiple measures. “

Ms. Dodd also pointed to recent state budget cuts as a big problem. For the past three years, overall state K-12 aid has declined.

“The way we prevent students from being behind in 3rd grade is to adequately fund all grades to provide the necessary smaller class sizes, early intervention, and professional development for our teachers,” she said.

But Teri E. Brecheen, the Oklahoma education department’s literacy director, said the state is taking steps to help schools. For instance, it is supplying $7.1 million this year to intervene with struggling readers and will deploy 60 literacy coaches next fall.

Closing a Loophole

In Arizona, the House and Senate recently approved legislation to tighten up a 2010 retention law that takes effect in 2013-14. The measure would close what advocates call a “loophole” that allows parents to override the test-based retention decision spelled out in the law.

“What kind of teeth are in a 3rd grade reading [law] if everyone can just opt out,” said Sen. Richard Crandall, a Republican who noted that Gov. Jan Brewer asked him to sponsor the measure.

Because of a House amendment on the retention of English-learners, the Senate must approve the bill again before it goes to the Republican governor.

At the same time, Gov. Brewer is seeking $50 million in new funding in her budget for reading intervention, but it’s unclear whether lawmakers will back that amount.

Indiana also has a new retention policy, though there’s been debate over its implications.

Reading legislation approved two years ago identifies 3rd grade retention as “a last resort,” but the state board of education in a 2011 policy indicated that retention would be a consequence, beginning in 2012-13, for any student who does not pass the state’s new 3rd grade reading exam, not counting several good-cause exemptions. Unlike Florida’s policy, it does not allow for alternative assessments or a portfolio option to demonstrate reading proficiency.

John G. Ellis, the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Superintendents, argues that the state department and board of education overreached by trying to turn the legislation into a retention mandate.

“What is mandatory on the reading side isn’t retention, but that students are retested at the 3rd grade,” he said. “The policy doesn’t override law.”

Mr. Ellis said he believes districts must simply have a conversation with parents to decide whether a child who failed the 3rd grade exam should be held back.

Indiana state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett said that if a student fails the new reading exam and does not qualify for an exemption, the state will count that child as a 3rd grader for state testing purposes the next year.

“It’s going to be very difficult for [districts] to justify sending a student to 4th grade and say they’re going to have to retake all the 3rd grade assessments,” he said. “It really comes down to this: How can we expect our children to use that vital skill of reading as a learning tool if they haven’t learned to read in the primary grades?”

Mr. Bennett said the state has taken extra steps to help districts, including a newly approved increase in state aid for full-day kindergarten.

But Steven L. Yager, the superintendent of the 6,800-student Southwest Allen County district in suburban Fort Wayne, said he doesn’t plan to be bound by a test result.

“We are complying with the law as it’s written,” he said. “ ‘Last resort’ means it’s a combined agreement with the parents and the school district. ... Until we’re told to do something different, that’s the way we’re going to handle it.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as More States Retaining 3rd Graders


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