Corrected: An earlier version of this article and its accompanying map contained outdated information about 3rd-grade promotion requirements in Washington state. Washington’s state education department on April 29 informed school districts that schools are no longer required to retain 3rd graders who fail that state’s reading exam.
It’s become a truism in education policy that reading is the gatekeeper to later academic success. In hopes of ensuring that success, a rising number of states bar promotion for students who do not read proficiently by 3rd grade.
In 2004, only Florida and Ohio used 3rd grade reading as a gatekeeper to promotion. Today, 16 states and the District of Columbia require—and three others allow—schools to retain 3rd graders based on reading performance.
Yet even as retention gains traction among state policymakers, new research questions both the effectiveness of holding back students and the timing of reading development itself.
“Not being able to decode is different from phonological fluency, which is different from not understanding what words mean,” said Shane R. Jimerson, the chairman of counseling, clinical, and school psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Just repeating a grade is not going to magically solve all those problems, and it adds the consequences psychologically of being left behind.”
‘Reading to Learn’
The theorized cognitive shift from “learning to read” in 3rd grade to “reading to learn” in 4th grade may not be as clear-cut as traditionally thought, some experts say.
“I think that a lot of the basal-reading programs grabbed onto that and structured their curricula so there was a clear shift in 4th grade, to move on from word work,” said Donna J. Coch, the principal investigator for Dartmouth University’s Reading Brains Lab. “It became a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
Inin Developmental Science, Ms. Coch and her colleagues tracked the brain activity of students in grades 3-5, as well as college students, as they saw a mix of actual words like “bed,” pseudowords like “bem,” and strings of random letters or symbols.
In one test, they circled the real words on a written test, to measure how well they consciously understood the words, while in another test, they saw one letter at a time, which allowed researchers to measure how quickly they processed real words and meaningless series of letters or symbols.
At a conscious level, the 4th and 5th graders were as accurate as adults at identifying what was a word and what was not a word, but in brain scans, they continued to process pseudowords like real words through 5th grade. While on a paper test, they looked like adult readers, the scans showed they processed words differently from adults well past 4th grade.
While 4th and 5th grade teachers often move to higher reading and content skills, “our study shows the lower-level skills are still developing [in students] through elementary school,” Ms. Coch said.
The concept of children’s continuously developing reading brains also plays out in the Common Core State Standards, which call for students to begin “reading to learn"—that is, drawing information from text—as early as kindergarten. There is no clear break between learning to read and reading to learn.
“There isn’t this magic age that, if you don’t catch a kid by that age, you lose them forever,” said Timothy Shanahan, a distinguished professor emeritus specializing in literacy research at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a lead writer of the common-core language arts standards. “It’s harder if a kid is six years behind to catch him up than if he’s two years behind, but it’s not because he’s stupider or loses the capacity to learn; it’s just a greater distance.”
And the opposite also holds true: “Just because you catch a 7-year-old up and get him to his class average, that’s terrific, but that doesn’t guarantee his future, either,” Mr. Shanahan said. “What you tend to see is [retained students] fall back over time.”
Catching Up or Falling Behind?
Until the mid-2000s, not much evidence has supported holding students back because of low reading skills.
Multiple studies and meta-analyses have found that students held back in a grade show academic and social problems later on, including being at higher risk for ultimately dropping out of school.
“And, the single most negative effect of retention is in what area? Reading,” said Mr. Jimerson of UC-Santa Barbara. “If it’s not contra-indicated for any other reason, it is for that. There are a lot of empirically supported strategies. Retention is not one of them.”
Those who support asking students to repeat a grade say an extra year gives the children more time to mature, both cognitively and socially, and provides them more time to practice and master critical skills.
Just Read, Florida!, one of the nation’s highest-profile retention programs, requires any 3rd grader who fails the reading portion of Florida’s state test to attend summer school and then repeat the grade under a high-quality teacher.
In multiyear evaluations of the initiative, researchers Marcus A. Winters of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville foundlow-performing-but-promoted peers in reading, mathematics, and science through 7th grade.
Schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia can bar promotion for 3rd graders who are poor readers.
Source: Education Commission of the States
Similarly in 2009, the RAND Corp. evaluated New York City’s reading-related retention initiative, which required students in grades 3, and later in grades 5 and 7 also, to pass a reading test in order to be promoted, but provided supplemental reading help for students who were retained.
Thefound students showed academic gains and no social-emotional problems after being held back.
Pinning Down Cause
Yet critics and the authors themselves noted there is no way to separate the value of retaining students from the value of other supports given in Florida and New York City.
“When I look at those studies, there’s no question that kids who are being retained are making gains, but you are stuck saying, ‘Yeah, but isn’t it what you did with that extra time?’ ” Mr. Shanahan said. "[The researchers] don’t have any data from a group that just got retained; they all got retained within that system.”
Separately, RAND researchers found in a research analysis that all the retention initiatives that improved student achievement included early assessments and significant, intensive interventions for the students who were retained.
“I’m a big fan of increasing the amount of instruction, but it’s not really an [intervention], it’s the measure of the amount” of the intervention, Mr. Shanahan said.
Even among states that require struggling readers to repeat 3rd grade, there’s no consensus on what happens to them on their second try.
A majority of states requiring retention allow students to be promoted if they participate in summer school, the Education Commission of the States found in a 2014 study, but district and state budget cuts have changed programs or limited access to some programs since 2008.
Seven states require students who are repeating 3rd grade to be assigned to a different teacher from the one they had their first time through. A majority of states also call for retained students to receive supplemental instruction in or after school, but those programs can differ significantly from one district to another.
Linda M. Sullivan-Dudzic, the director of elementary and special programs for the 5,000-student Bremerton district in Washington, recalled following one retained 3rd grader for a day to get a sense of his interventions.
“That little guy went to seven different people doing seven different things. All of them were well intentioned, but seven different things in one day—that’s where you have to watch out,” she said. “Your interventions have to be aligned with what you are teaching, or you are just confusing students who are already struggling.”
Third grade reading policies notwithstanding, the number of K-12 students being retained may have peaked. A 2014 analysis in Educational Researcher found that the retention rate across all 50 states fell from 2.9 percent in the 2004-05 school year to 1.5 percent in the 2009-10 school year, with declines across the board.
However, these numbers do not include more recent retentions following the tougher common-core reading tests that were rolled out since 2010.
One possible reason for the discrepancy between states’ stepped-up actions and actual retention rates: Educators may be working hard to help students avoid retention. For example, in Washington, which until this spring required schools to retain most 3rd graders who fail a statewide reading exam, Ms. Sullivan-Dudzic said she works to help parents understand their children’s reading difficulties and support them before retentions happen.
Bremerton, on Puget Sound, has six high-poverty elementary schools—with 57 percent to 83 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price meals—and in 2001, the state reported that only 4 percent of district kindergartners entered knowing the alphabet.
To avoid leaving at-risk readers with a “potpourri of things to plug holes” in reading skills, Ms. Sullivan-Dudzic said the district streamlined its reading interventions this year.
Every 3rd grader who scores “below basic” in reading a month after school starts gets an additional reading session each day with a reading specialist targeted to a weak area, such as phonics or fluency. In January, teachers meet with the parents of students who are still struggling to plan activities and supports at home and in school.
A morning tutorial, in which students get an additional 45-minute session four to five days a week, has proved particularly popular with the district’s rising homeless-student population.
“That’s been a really nice intervention for our students in crisis,” Ms. Sullivan-Dudzic said. “They get to come early and get breakfast and a little additional practice with a certified reading teacher.”
Even those who fail the final reading test later in the spring can be promoted if they participate in an intensive summer school program.
“We don’t just want to do this because it’s the law; we want to help all our kids who are struggling,” she said.
In the end, politics may play as big a role as pedagogy in the continued use of retention as a reading intervention.
Florida was one of the earliest states to adopt 3rd grade reading as a gatekeeper, as part of then-governor and current Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush’s statewide reading initiative. Mr. Bush and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the nonprofit group he launched, were active in promoting retention laws in other states, and reading remains part of his platform as he seeks his party’s presidential nomination.
The pressure for students to master literacy in the early grades is likely to increase as common standards increase the rigor of early grades, said Barbara T. Bowman, a child-development professor and a co-founder of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based education research center.
That may reduce the impetus to retain struggling readers, if significantly more students failed the more-challenging 3rd grade English/language arts tests.
A separate analysis by the Education Commission of the States calculated that nationally, it costs an average of more than $10,000 to retain one student. If, for example, districts held back all the roughly 10,000 3rd graders who failed the reading portion of the Florida state tests in 2014, taxpayers would be on the hook for another $100 million.
Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Should 3rd Grade Be Pivot Point for Early Reading?