More states toughen grading on readings

Third graders Qwalynde Cain (left) and Sata Lumpkins worked on a reading assignment in Wichita, Kan.
Mike Hutmacher/associated Press
Third graders Qwalynde Cain (left) and Sata Lumpkins worked on a reading assignment in Wichita, Kan.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Flunked, retained, held back.

Whatever you call it, increasing numbers of states are not promoting students who are struggling to read at the end of the third grade.

Thirty-two states have passed legislation designed to improve third-grade literacy, according to the Education Commission of the States. Retention is part of the policies in 14 states, with some offering more leeway than others.


‘‘Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can’t read is irresponsible — and cruel,’’ said Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas in announcing in his recent State of the State address that third-graders should demonstrate an ability to read before being promoted. He also proposed a $12 million program for improving third-graders’ reading skills.

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Backers say retention policies pressure teachers and parents to make sure children succeed.

But opponents say students fare better if they are promoted and offered extra help. They say holding students back does nothing to address the underlying problems that caused them to struggle.

Also, students who have been retained have a two-fold increased risk of eventually dropping out compared to students with similar academic struggles who weren’t retained, said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Human Capital Research Collaborative, citing studies in Chicago and Baltimore.

Retention policies were tried in large city districts but in recent years have been scaled back or dropped in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Los Angeles district spokeswoman Monica Carazo said her school system studied retention and determined that ‘‘research did not show it as an effective practice.’’


Ending so-called social promotion was one of Jeb Bush’s education reforms when he was governor of Florida, and his nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education began touting the reform package after it started in 2008.

‘‘I think reform-minded education chiefs and state legislatures and governors are looking for something to do to help kids be successful and to do that they need policies that aren’t the same old, same old,’’ said Mary Laura Bragg, the foundation’s director of state policy implementation.

Although the number isn’t tracked nationally, some national representative studies show that about one-fifth of eighth graders have been retained at least once, said Reynolds, who has studied retention. He said there is wide variation among school districts, with some in urban areas reporting retention rates as high as 40 percent.

Because students shift away from learning to read in the early grades to reading to learn in the upper elementary grades, most state-mandated retention policies make third grade the make-or-break year.

In Florida, where the policy is a decade old, reading is generally measured by performance on a state-administered standardized test. Exemptions also are allowed for some students, like those who do well on an alternative test or whose teachers put together a portfolio showing they can read at grade level.


Because struggling Florida students can be held back up to two times, Megan Allen has students as old as 13 in her fifth-grade class in Tampa. Some of the younger ones still talk about whether or not Santa is real and Disney movies.

Among their twice-retained classmates, Allen, the Florida Teacher of the Year in 2010, has confiscated sex notes.

‘‘I think it is defeating for them,’’ she said of the retained students. ‘‘These are students who are already frustrated and instead of having laws that maybe offer them supports and solutions, we have laws that are more focused on the stick than the carrot.’’

One of the states where the Bush-backed Foundation for Excellence in Education has been involved is Colorado, where Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper signed a law in May that mandates extra help for struggling young students and bars those considered far behind on reading from advancing to fourth grade without their superintendent’s permission.