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
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.)
Research has shown that minority students attending inner-city campuses are more likely to be held back a grade than their white peers at more affluent
neighborhood schools. Boys are also more likely to be retained than girls.
Berliner believes that for the overwhelming majority of students who are held back, it was the wrong decision.
"There are stories where it was clearly the right thing, and the student moves up to the next grade more confident -- I don't want to negate that,"
Berliner said. "But it's the wrong move for the vast majority of students. And since we don't know in advance which kids won't benefit, it's simply the
wrong policy decision."
There's plenty of evidence that the nation's students are struggling with literacy. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress,
often referred to as "The Nation's Report Card," reading scores had stagnated.
Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort of
political, education, business and advocacy leaders to close the nation's literacy gap, said "We shouldn't be at all surprised by the NAEP scores... we
can point to nothing substantial in terms of interventions or programs that would have made that number different."
While lawmakers wrangle over whether to hold back struggling students, the Campaign For Grade-Level Reading is focusing on three key factors aimed
directly at improving the next set of NAEP scores -- readiness, attendance, and summer learning. The overarching goal is to have students arrive at
school with the fundamental reading readiness skills they need to be successful from the outset.