Mandatory Retention for Underperforming 3rd Graders?

By Julie Rasicot — March 06, 2012 2 min read
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Should 3rd graders who aren’t reading on grade level be held back?

That’s the idea behind a hard-line mandatory retention approach that’s being promoted by a growing number of states as a way to keep younger kids from falling further behind. Oklahoma, Arizona and Indiana have passed legislation regarding mandatory retention and New Mexico, Iowa and Tennessee are considering proposals, according to an NPR news report this week

The issue of mandatory retention is generating controversy as lawmakers, educators and parents debate the impact of retaining younger students who are not meeting early-literacy proficiency standards.

Some say the hard-line approach is necessary to stop the promotion of kids who are destined to fail because they haven’t mastered the reading skills they need to succeed in 4th grade. Others say the humiliation and sense of failure generated by retaining students is too damaging and call for schools to provide intervention instead, such as tutoring services, to get kids up to speed.

“It’s just mean-spirited,” David Berliner, a professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University, tells NPR. “If you’re willing to spend an extra $10,000 to give the kid another year of schooling, why aren’t you willing to put some money into a tutor over the next two years? That’s what we ought to do—not leave them back, but get them the resources.”

Here’s a sample of what’s happening:

In New Mexico, lawmakers recently considered two different bills focusing on mandatory retention for students not meeting proficiency standards. Under one bill, students would be retained if they failed to demonstrate proficiency in math or reading for two consecutive years. The other bill focused only on reading, calling for stricter standards on retentions for kids in grades kindergarten through 3.

Last year, Oklahoma adopted legislation requiring 3rd graders who are not reading at grade level to participate in a summer program to bring them up to grade level. If they fail to progress or don’t attend the program, they will be held back.

Both Floridaand Arizona have laws requiring the retention of 3rd graders who don’t pass the reading portion of state standardized tests. Since Florida’s law was enacted in 2002, school officials say they have seen test scores improve for kids who were held back a year.

In Arizona, school officials and a student’s parents are expected to choose an appropriate intervention, which can include summer school or more reading instruction.

Passage of Arizona’s law in 2010 led the Arizona Association of School Psychologists to issue a guide to best practices to help school psychologists assist their schools in implementing the law and in trying to reduce the numbers of students who are held back.

“School psychologists will be required to balance their knowledge of the potential harmful effects of retention with the implementation of state law,” the guide says.

In Colorado, lawmakers have backed off proposed legislation that would have required retention of 3rd graders who didn’t meet grade-level proficiency on standardized tests.

The bill now requires literacy support and intervention with retention as a recommended option if a student still has a significant reading deficiency at the end of the school year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.