Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 13
Third Grade Reading Retention Is Back. Should It Be?
Despite mixed evidence,
the policy is gathering steam
after a pandemic-related pause
By Sarah Schwartz
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
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
Conference 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 shortterm
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
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, "
said 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
The retention policies are testbased,
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 readingrelated
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
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
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
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
" 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
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. "
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
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
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
EDUCATION WEEK | November 23, 2022 | www.edweek.org | 13
Education Week - November 23, 2022
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - November 23, 2022
Education Week - November 23, 2022
The Learning Recovery Strategy Districts Are Overlooking
Will Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter Start an Educator Exodus?
From Hospice Work to 1st Grade: One Teacher’s Career-Changing Journey
School Dress Codes Aren’t Fair to Everyone, Federal Study Finds
As Revised Lucy Calkins Curriculum Launches, Educators Debate If Changes Are Sufficient
HBCUs to Scale Up Teacher Residency Programs
Schools Are Still Understaffed. Here’s How Hard-Pressed Principals Are Responding
Third Grade Reading Retention Is Back. Should It Be?
Middle School Is Tough, But These Principals Like It Best of All
How to Survive—and Thrive— As a Middle School Principal
Stop Demonizing Black Boys. Let Them Play, Too
Why One Principal Is Asking Her Staff to Do Less
Letters to the Editor
EdWeek Top School Jobs
Lucy Calkins Revisits and Revises Her Reading Curriculum
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Education Week - November 23, 2022
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 3
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - The Learning Recovery Strategy Districts Are Overlooking
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 5
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Will Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter Start an Educator Exodus?
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - From Hospice Work to 1st Grade: One Teacher’s Career-Changing Journey
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - School Dress Codes Aren’t Fair to Everyone, Federal Study Finds
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 9
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - As Revised Lucy Calkins Curriculum Launches, Educators Debate If Changes Are Sufficient
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - HBCUs to Scale Up Teacher Residency Programs
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Schools Are Still Understaffed. Here’s How Hard-Pressed Principals Are Responding
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Third Grade Reading Retention Is Back. Should It Be?
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Middle School Is Tough, But These Principals Like It Best of All
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 15
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 16
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 17
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - How to Survive—and Thrive— As a Middle School Principal
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - 19
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Stop Demonizing Black Boys. Let Them Play, Too
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Why One Principal Is Asking Her Staff to Do Less
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Letters to the Editor
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - November 23, 2022 - Lucy Calkins Revisits and Revises Her Reading Curriculum