At some point over the past few pandemic years, many states pressed pause on one particular high-stakes, controversial piece of education policy: 3rd grade retention. But now, it’s back.
The laws either allow or require districts to hold back students who aren’t reading proficiently by the end of the 3rd grade. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have these policies on the books, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
The idea is that 3rd grade is a pivotal time for literacy instruction: After that year, reading demands across subjects get a lot bigger. Kids are expected to be able to read word problems in math, directions in science, primary sources in social studies.
Research has borne out that it’s harder for students to succeed if they’re not proficient by 3rd grade. One landmark study found that students who couldn’t read on grade level by then were four times less likely to graduate high school on time than their peers who could.
But whether requiring struggling students to repeat that 3rd grade year will lead to better results is a different and more complicated question. Research findings on the policy are mixed, and have to be weighed against the negative social and emotional consequences of holding students back a grade. Many studies show only short-term academic gains, while others demonstrate greater likelihood of adverse outcomes like bullying.
The debate around these policies is heating up again now, as states wrestle with when to restart them after many were suspended during the early days of the pandemic. Alabama, for example, passed legislation that required 3rd grade retention in 2019, but decided to delay the enforcement of that policy until the 2023-24 school year.
Third grade retention is embedded in states’ ‘science of reading’ laws
Alabama’s new law speaks to another trend that’s bringing these 3rd grade policies back into the spotlight: The retention requirement was part of a sweeping bill aimed at bringing the “science of reading” to the state.
The term refers to the body of research behind how children learn to read. Alabama’s law requires that teachers use evidence-based approaches to literacy instruction and that struggling students receive extra help. But it also puts in place a retention requirement—as does a recently passed science of reading law in Tennessee.
These retention components are designed to be the stick that urges districts to take new mandates seriously, said Kymyona Burk, a senior policy fellow at ExcelinEd. Burk led the implementation of Mississippi’s reading law, which included a retention policy, as the state’s literacy director.
“It’s making sure that there are consequences. Not consequences for the students, but we have to make sure that teachers are equipped,” she said.
The problem, experts point out, is that the retention piece doesn’t have nearly as much research consensus as the other components.
“Though we might see them together in legislation, the science of reading has a very strong evidence base, and retention policies don’t,” Allison Socol, the vice president of P-12 policy, practice, and research for The Education Trust.
“I’m very glad to see a growing conversation about making sure that all students have strong foundational skills early on, because we know how important that is,” she said. “But the research is pretty clear that, particularly for students of color and other underrepresented student groups, that retention in the long run isn’t effective—and in fact can be harmful.”
What does the research say about retention?
The retention policies are test-based, meaning that proficiency is largely defined by students’ score on a 3rd grade reading assessment. Students who score below a cut-off are identified for retention, though most states allow certain exemptions.
How do students who are held back fare? Studies generally show short-term academic gains that fade out over time. Researchers have also found negative consequences for students who repeat an elementary grade—students who are held back are more likely to be suspended in the next few years afterward, and students who are old for their grade are more likely to be bullied or exhibit bullying behaviors. There’s an equity concern too: Black and Latino students are consistently more likely to be retained than white students.
Still, a couple of recent large-scale studies have shown longer-term academic benefits for 3rd grade reading-related retention, when controlling for other factors. Both of these studies looked at Florida, a state that has had a 3rd grade reading policy on the books since 2003.
In a 2017 study, researchers followed students who were retained in 3rd grade through high school. They found that students who were retained had higher grade point averages and took fewer remedial courses in high school than students who had similar reading abilities but weren’t retained.
Another study of Florida students, from 2019, found that English learners who were held back in 3rd grade achieved English proficiency faster than peers who weren’t and tripled their chances of taking college-credit bearing courses in high school.
Martin West, the academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the researchers on the 2017 study, said it’s hard to know exactly why Florida’s experiment seemed to work. But he noted that the state required schools to develop reading support plans for students who were held back, and to place those students with an effective teacher.
“An important distinction in these policies is between those that foreground the retention policy and do almost nothing other than it, and those that use the retention policy, if at all, as one part of a much broader strategy to drive teacher practice,” said West.
The message resonates with Hiller Spires, a professor emerita of literacy and technology at North Carolina State’s College of Education. Spires is also a former executive director of the university’s Friday Institute, which analyzed the state’s 3rd grade retention policy in 2018. The resulting report found that it had no effect on student achievement.
When the retention policy was first implemented, though, there wasn’t as much emphasis on differentiated intervention, Spires said. She hypothesized that this could be part of the reason why the policy wasn’t effective.
“If you just keep a kid back, and there are no customized supports, whatever happened that didn’t make a kid successful is going to happen again,” Spires said.
North Carolina’s new reading law, passed in 2021, requires districts to adopt more detailed intervention plans for struggling students. This, along with state-provided training for teachers and reading specialists in each district could make retention more effective, Spires said.
“I would be optimistic, but at the same time, I don’t think that retention is the answer,” she said, citing the possibility of unintended consequences like emotional difficulties and low self-esteem.
Anticipating ‘unintended consequences’
In the end, it’s hard to pull apart the factors that led to improved achievement. Take the 2019 study, where English learners in Florida saw big gains after 3rd grade retention. Those retained students received at least 90 minutes of daily, targeted reading instruction from high-performing teachers.
“The question that this study raises for me is, was it being held back, or was it the targeted reading intervention?” asked Socol of EdTrust.
Schools can start interventions while still promoting students to the next grade, and “there’s now a lot of funding for those kinds of programs,” she said, referencing federal COVID relief money.
Some states have taken on new initiatives designed at doing just this. In Delaware, for example, the state department of education is using ESSER funds to offer training to secondary reading teachers designed to help them provide “equitable” instruction to older students who have gaps in their foundational reading skills.
But taking this approach ignores an important benefit of retention policies, Burk argued: The policies telegraph to all educators in the school system that they play a role in meeting this accountability measure. “I know that if I don’t do my part, then this student may not be promoted to 4th grade,” Burk said.
This idea emerged in conversations with educators in Florida, too, West said. “The main role that the policy played in Florida was that early literacy is something we’re taking seriously.”
Some other studies, including from Florida, have shown that places with test-based promotion policies see improvements in student scores within the 3rd grade year—a finding that researchers argue shows that the existence of the policy acts as a motivator for teachers and school leaders.
Even so, Socol said, “sometimes policies, even with well-intentioned goals, have unintended consequences.” State leaders may say they don’t want large numbers of children to be held back, but is that happening anyway?
Most states allow students to be exempted from the retention policy for certain reasons—for example, they’re an English learner with only a couple of years of English instruction, they’ve already been retained before, or parents and the school decide together that retention isn’t appropriate. Nationally, the percentage of students retained has fallen from 2000 to 2016.
It’s possible that numbers plummeted further during the pandemic. In Detroit, for example, almost a quarter of students scored low enough on the 3rd grade reading exam to be retained last school year under Michigan’s law, but the vast majority moved on to the 4th grade. Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat in September that the district didn’t think a single test score should determine whether students were promoted.
Still, some students do get held back. In Mississippi, for example, about 10 percent of 3rd graders were retained in the 2018-19 school year. In spring 2022, about three quarters of students passed the 3rd grade reading test on the first try; students have up to two tries to retake the reading assessment if they initially fail.
Other states have implemented tiered options. In North Carolina, for example, students who are “retained” may repeat 3rd grade, but they can also attend a 3rd/4th transitional class the next year, or simply move to 4th grade, with a “reading retained” label—a designation that gives them extra intervention support.
“I just don’t think that you have to do [retention or promotion],” said Spires. “It can be more customized; you can have different models that are more responsive to different students.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Third Grade Reading Retention Is Back. Should It Be?