The reading rate for the third grade is back. Do you have to be?

At some point during the past few pandemic years, many states pressed for a pause on a specific and controversial part of their high-risk education policy: third grade retention. But now, she’s back.

Laws allow or require districts to ban students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade. These policies are on the registries of twenty-five states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Board of State Legislatures..

The idea is that third grade is a pivotal time for literacy instruction: after that year, the reading requirements across school subjects become much greater. Children are expected to be able to read word problems in math, trends in science, and basic resources in social studies.

Research has shown that it is difficult for students to succeed if they are not proficient in third grade. One notable study It found that students who could not read at grade level by that time were four times less likely to graduate from high school on time than their peers who could.

But what if require Students who struggle to repeat that third grade will lead to better results is a different and more complex question. Research findings on politics are mixed, and must be weighed against the negative social and emotional consequences of disabling students from the classroom. Many studies show only short-term academic gains, while others show a greater likelihood of negative outcomes such as bullying.

Debate over these policies is raging again now, as states grapple with when to restart them after many were suspended during the early days of the pandemic. For example, Alabama passed legislation requiring third-grade retention in 2019, but decided to delay enforcement of that policy. Until the 2023-24 school year.

Third grade retention is included in state “science of reading” laws

Alabama’s new law speaks of another trend that is bringing these third-grade policies back into the spotlight: The retention requirement was part of a comprehensive bill aimed at bringing the “science of reading” to the state.

The term refers to the body of research on how children learn to read. Alabama law requires that teachers use evidence-based approaches to literacy instruction and that struggling students receive extra help. But it also sets a retention clause—as does Tennessee’s recently passed literacy law.

These retention components are designed to be the baton urging counties to take the new states seriously, said Kymyona Burk, a policy fellow at ExcelinEd. Burke led the implementation of the Mississippi Reading Act, which included a retention policy, as the state’s director of literacy.

It’s making sure that there are consequences. Not consequences for students, but we have to make sure teachers are equipped,” she said.

Experts point out that the problem is that the retention piece doesn’t have nearly as much research consensus as the other components.

“Although we may see them together in legislation, the science of reading has a very strong evidence base, and retention policies are not,” said Alison Sokol, vice president of policy, practice and research for P-12 at The Education Trust.

“I am so happy to see a growing conversation about making sure all students have strong core skills early on, because we know how important that is,” she said. “But the research is pretty clear that, especially for students of color and other underrepresented student groups, this long-term retention is not effective – and in fact can be harmful.”

What does research say about retention?

Retention policies are test-based, which means that proficiency is largely determined by the students’ score in the third-grade reading assessment. Students with scores below the cut-off are determined to be retained, although most states allow some exemptions.

How do students booked fare? Studies generally show short-term academic gains that fade over time. The researchers also found negative consequences for students who repeat an elementary class—students who are delayed are more likely to drop out. In the next few years after that, students who are older in their grades are more likely to be bullied or bullying behaviors. There are also equity concerns: Black and Latino students are more likely to be retained than white students.

However, two recent large-scale studies have shown long-term academic benefits for third-grade reading retention, when controlling for other factors. These two studies looked at Florida, a state that has had a third-grade reading policy on books since 2003.

In a 2017 studyIn the study, the researchers followed students who were kept in third 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 were not retained.

Another study for Florida students, from 2019found that third-grade English language learners achieved English proficiency faster than their peers who were not and tripled their chances of taking college credit courses in high school.

It’s hard to know exactly why the Florida experiment worked, said Martin West, academic dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the researchers on the 2017 study. But he noted that the state has asked schools to develop reading support plans for students who have been delayed, and put those students with an effective teacher.

“An important distinction in these policies is between those that introduce a retention policy and do nothing but do so, and those that use a retention policy, if any, as part of a much broader strategy to advance teacher practice,” West said.

The message resonated with Heller Spires, professor emeritus of literacy and technology at the North Carolina State College of Education. Spiers is also the former executive director of the university’s Friday Institute, which analyzed the state’s third-grade retention policy in 2018. The resulting report found that it had no effect on student achievement.

Spiers said that when the retention policy was first implemented, there wasn’t much focus on differentiated intervention. I assumed this might be part of the reason the policy was ineffective.

“If you keep your baby again, and there is no dedicated support, whatever happened and the baby didn’t work will happen again,” Spiers said.

North Carolina’s new reading law, passed in 2021, requires districts to adopt more detailed intervention plans for struggling students. Spiers said this, along with the training the state provides for teachers and reading professionals in each district, can make retention more effective.

“I would be optimistic, but at the same time, I don’t think retention is the answer,” she said, citing the possibility of unintended consequences such as emotional difficulties and low self-esteem.

Anticipate ‘unintended consequences’

In the end, it is difficult to separate the factors that led to improved achievement. Take the 2019 study, where English language learners in Florida saw significant gains after retaining third grade. Students retained received at least 90 minutes of targeted daily reading instruction from high-performing teachers.

“The question this study raises for me is, is it a deferred or is it a target reading intervention?” asked Socol from EdTrust.

Schools can begin interventions while still promoting students to the next grade, and “there is now a lot of funding for these kinds of programs,” she said, referring to federal COVID relief funds.

Some countries have taken new initiatives designed to do so. In Delaware, for example, the state Department of Education uses ESSER funds to provide training for secondary reading teachers Designed to help them provide a “fair” education for older students who have gaps in their basic reading skills.

But taking this approach ignores an important benefit of retention policies, as Burke has argued: the policy telegraph to all teachers in the school system that they play a role in meeting this measure of accountability. “I know if I don’t do my part, this student might not get promoted to fourth grade,” Burke said.

West said that idea came up in conversations with teachers in Florida as well. “The major role that politics has played in Florida is that early literacy is something we take very seriously.”

Some other studies, including from Floridashowed that places with test-based promotion policies see improvements in student grades through third grade—a finding that the researchers argue shows that the presence of the policy acts as a motivator for teachers and school leaders.

However, Sokol said, “Sometimes policies, even with well-intentioned goals, have unintended consequences.” Country leaders may say they don’t want to prevent large numbers of children, but is that happening anyway?

Most states allow students to be exempt from a retention policy for certain reasons—for example, they are English learners who have had only two years of English education, have already been retained before, or parents and the school together decide that retention is inappropriate. Nationwide, the proportion of student retention decreased from 2000 to 2016.

The numbers are likely to have fallen further during the pandemic. In Detroit, for example, nearly a quarter of students scored low enough on a third-grade reading exam to hold them in the last school year under Michigan law, but the vast majority have moved on to fourth grade. Detroit manager Nikolai Viti told Chalkbeat in September The district does not believe that a single test score should determine whether students are promoted.

However, some students are late. In Mississippi, for example, about 10 percent of third graders retained in the 2018-19 school year. In the spring of 2022, about three-quarters of students passed the third-grade reading test on the first attempt; Students have up to two attempts to retake the reading assessment if they fail initially.

Other countries have implemented graduated options. In North Carolina, for example, “Retained” students can repeat third grade, but they can also attend third/fourth transitional class the following year, or simply move on to fourth grade, with a “Retained Reading” designation—a designation that gives them support additional intervention.

“I just don’t think you should do that [retention or promotion]Spiers said. “It can be more personalized; you can have different models that are more responsive to different students.”

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