Third Grade Again: The Trouble With Holding Students Back

When a child repeats a grade, it reflects positively on the district. But for the individual, it can be an irreversible step backward.  

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When it comes to education reform, lawmakers and teachers often find themselves at cross-purposes. Lawmakers want to enact sweeping legislation aimed at overhauling what is often perceived as a flailing system. Teachers want to help individual students who are actually in their classes -- right now. 

This short term vs. long term dichotomy is playing out in the debate over how to best address the nation's literacy gap. Lawmakers in at least four states (Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee) want to hold back students who aren't reading at grade level by the end of third grade. But educators and researchers say while that might seem like a short-term solution, it could do long-term harm to a child's social and educational development. 

The often-cited research makes it clear that the third grade is a watershed of sorts. One study found that students who are not reading at grade level by then have only a 20 percent chance of ever catching up to their proficient peers. A recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found students who were below grade level in the third grade  were four times more likely to drop out of school. 

But, as the Wall Street Journal's Stephanie Banchero points out, the findings on whether retention is good for students is more of a mixed bag. Florida implemented a third-grade retention initiative in 2002, and saw its fourth-grade reading scores soar. But reading scores for the state's eighth grader have flatlined.

Arizona, along with Indiana and Oklahoma, recently passed legislation to hold back third graders who are not reading at grade level. When asked where he stood on his state's initiative to hold back third graders, educational psychologist David Berliner -- the Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University -- was blunt in his assessment.

"It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental," Berliner said. "Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn't reading well in third grade that it's a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you're going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you're going to get a better outcome." 

Retention rates vary widely from state to state, and recent national statistics are hard to come by. Researchers have estimated that 15 percent of the nation's K-12 students are retained each year. (The National Association of School Psychologists put the figure at 2 million in 2004.)

Presented by

Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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