Reading & Literacy

3rd Grade Reading Retention: Why the Research Is Complicated

By Sarah Schwartz — August 29, 2023 5 min read
Hispanic school teacher reading aloud to her young students
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The wave of early reading legislation across the country has brought a renewed focus on 3rd grade retention policies—requirements or recommendations that students who aren’t reading on grade level by the end of that year repeat the grade.

Many states have had these policies on the books for years. Others, such as Tennessee, have implemented new policies recently as part of overhauls to early reading instruction that also mandate changes to curriculum, instruction, and teacher training.

Retention laws are common—about half of the states in the country have a policy. They’re also controversial.

In passing them, states aim to ensure that all students are ready for the more challenging coursework and reading across subjects that they will have to do in upper elementary classrooms. But critics of retention policies cite concerns that holding students back can have negative social-emotional consequences, and may not lead to better academic outcomes.

This week, Education Week hosted a webinar to discuss the research base around 3rd grade retention policies—under what conditions they are most effective, and what cautions states and districts should consider.

Read on for highlights from the event.

3rd grade retention is only effective coupled with other supports

Studies have shown that in states where retention is part of a broader early literacy effort, students who are retained can make academic progress, said Umut Özek, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation.

“The key is the instructional support component for students in the following year,” he said, referencing Florida’s reading retention policy, which also included interventions targeted to retained students’ academic needs—individualized literacy plans, assignment to high-performing teachers, at least 90 minutes of daily reading instruction, and the opportunity to attend summer reading camp.

“Additional time is great, but if you use additional time [as] business as usual, it’s probably not going to be as effective,” Özek said.

Teachers also need support for a retention policy to work as intended, said Kymyona Burk, a senior policy fellow for early literacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. In Mississippi, she said, teachers received professional development on reading instructional practice, but also data analysis. The goal was to give them the tools they needed to interpret students’ test results, and use that information to target areas of need, Burk said.

More recent research confirms that effective retention policies include targeted student supports. In a paper published this year, Michigan State University education policy doctoral student Amy Cummings and her colleagues analyzed early literacy laws, comparing all states with retention mandates to a subset of those states that also had comprehensive literacy policies. Those policies included training and coaching for teachers, funding, and lots of supports for struggling students.

They found that states with 3rd grade retention mandates saw increases in reading test scores over time. “But over and above that, the states with the comprehensive policies that provided these wraparound supports demonstrated the strongest effects on achievement,” Cummings said.

Still, the research on 3rd grade retention shows that effects tend to fade out over time, often tapering off when students are in middle school, she said. The research on longer-term effects of holding 3rd graders back, such as high school and post-secondary outcomes, is scant, Özek added.

Retention policies can also have negative effects, inequitable application

Third grade retention is unique in some ways, Özek said: “The evidence on retention is completely different when we look at middle school grades.” Students who are held back in those later years are less likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, he said.

But even for younger students, there are social-emotional risks to retention, like the potential stigma of being seen as behind, or the challenge of adjusting to a new peer group, Özek said.

“One thing that might exacerbate these risks is differential enforcement of the retention policy, especially based on socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity,” he added. And there is evidence that policies have been implemented with these biases.

In Florida, a 2009 study found that students of color were more likely to be retained than white students, even if their academic performance was similar. A more recent study in Michigan found similar results.

In part, this may be due to discretionary exemptions, said Özek.

Retention policies generally include exemptions for students who are less likely to benefit from being held back—students with disabilities, for example, or English learners who have been in an EL program for less than two years. But many states also have discretionary, or “good cause” exemptions, which are often accessed through parent advocacy.

In a 2019 study, Özek and his colleagues found that Florida’s 3rd grade retention policy was enforced differently depending on students’ socioeconomic background, specifically the education level of their mothers. Children whose mothers had less than a high school degree were more likely to be held back than children whose mothers had a bachelor’s degree or higher—a difference the authors were able to attribute to the more educated mothers’ children being promoted based on good cause exemptions.

Are retention policies necessary?

Third grade retention policies implemented alongside student supports are most effective. But would those supports be effective on their own, without a retention component?

In Mississippi, after the state began offering teacher training and interventions for struggling students, fewer students were identified for 3rd grade retention. The percentage of students passing the state’s reading test increased from 2015 to 2018, said Burk.

“Those students who began early with the supports and interventions, the identification, and had teachers who had started going through our [reading] training and had learned more about how to teach students how to read—our teachers in those grades began to get better prepared students, and our students were getting better prepared and more informed teachers,” she said.

But Burk still thinks the “threat of retention” played an important role in that process. It placed pressure on school systems to make sure that students were getting the help they needed, before they got to 3rd grade, she said.

Examining the effect of wide-ranging early literacy policies that don’t include retention is a next step, said Cummings. She noted that in Michigan, the state saw positive trends in English/language arts achievement before the retention component of its reading law took effect. This retention component has since been repealed, providing another opportunity for analysis, she said.

“It will be interesting in the future when we have a few more years of data to look at, what were the effects on achievement when we did have retention vs. when we didn’t?”

Watch the full webinar here.

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