Looking for our new site?

Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

< Back to the Education Policy Program

What States are Doing to Help Improve Children’s Reading

Published:  October 11, 2012

States are starting to enact laws that retain third graders who are unable to score at proficient levels on states’ reading assessments. In 2002, under the leadership of Governor Jeb Bush, Florida instituted one of the first such policies as part of its comprehensive reading law. And that is key – the retention policy is just a piece of the law. Florida has made significant investments in literacy, PreK-12, and has seen improvements in children’s reading proficiency since the law’s implementation. The retention piece of Florida’s law receives the most attention, but it’s not clear that Florida’s students’ gains in reading can be attributed to the retention policy or if retention is even a necessary piece of the plan. The higher reading scores might instead be the result of Florida’s comprehensive approach to literacy that includes both prevention and intervention strategies. In a recent op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, I delve more into this issue.

Since leaving office former Governor Bush, founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has traveled the country touting the law and encouraging states to adopt policies similar to Florida’s, pushing the end of social promotion as an important piece. Several states have followed in Florida’s controversial footsteps. To date, at least 15 other states have enacted similar laws requiring retention if students are not achieving a specific level on state reading exams: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. And at least two other states, New Mexico and Mississippi, are also considering third grade retention proposals.

But these states aren’t just adopting Florida’s retention policy; they are, in varying degrees, trying to tackle reading problems. And other states have passed laws targeting third-grade literacy, but have not required retention as a piece of their approach. In August, the Education Commission of the States released a document identifying state statutes that require identification of, intervention for, and retention of struggling readers, preK-3rd. Based on the ECS paper, here are some strategies adopted by various states:

Exemptions to retention

  • Several of the states with retention policies (AR, CT, DE, IA, MD, TN, WV) only permit retention if students do not participate in an intervention – such as summer school – prior to fourth grade.
  • Colorado recommends the retention of third graders who score low on the state’s reading test and requires a student’s parent, teacher and another school official to meet to decide if the student should be promoted or retained.
  • Several states with the retention requirement also allow for several exemptions from retention including students who are English Language Learners and special education students as well as those who have been previously retained. Eight states also allow the promotion of students on the basis of an alternative assessment or portfolio of student work. Four states allow students to be promoted if they receive a principal or teacher recommendation.

Reading assessments

  • 32 states and the District of Columbia require early reading assessments to diagnose reading deficiencies in at least one of the grades prior to fourth grade. Both Arizona and Florida require annual reading assessments for children preK-3rd.


  • 29 states and DC require districts to provide some type of intervention or remediation designated or suggested by the state. The intervention required by the most states is supplemental instruction during regular school hours followed by the development of an academic improvement plan. Some states like Florida require extensive interventions while others, such as Georgia, require few.
  • In addition to Florida, several other states – Arizona, Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri and North Carolina – require a summer reading program. Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wyoming require schools to develop an academic improvement plan for struggling readers. Three states require retained students be assigned a different teacher.
  • States differ in which grade-level interventions are provided. Arkansas, DC, New York and Rhode Island provide interventions K-12. Most other states with reading laws target interventions for a grouping of elementary grades K-3, K-4 or K-5. Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Tennessee focus reading interventions on third grade.

Parental notification

  • 21 states and DC require schools to notify parents about reading deficiencies, interventions in place, and, depending on the state, the possibility of retention. Ohio requires that parents must be involved in choosing an intervention strategy. And Arizona requires that the student’s parents choose the intervention strategy.

Investing in instruction

  • Florida has made investments in professional development and reading coaches, and it requires elementary schools to provide 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction for all students. This year the state invested more than $100 million to ensure schools could deliver services to improve literacy in kindergarten through 12th grade. The ECS paper does not cover whether these types of initiatives are included in other states’ reading legislation. But this is surely a necessary piece of the puzzle. Not all teachers in elementary schools are well prepared to teach reading.

Also left out of this compilation of states’ reading policies is the important issue of funding. Are states providing additional dollars to districts to identify struggling readers and provide necessary interventions? Or are districts left to redirect local funds on their own? And what about in those states that require students to be retained, who is footing the bill? Though the exact cost differs by state, it costs about $10,000 to retain a student. If even five to 10 percent of third-grade students are retained in state, that’s a lot of money. And it is a strategy that may do kids more harm than good, as much of the research suggests, notwithstanding the recent study from Brookings that does not answer the question of whether retention is a necessary component of reading interventions.

We know there are lots of things states can do to ensure kids are on the path to learning to read by the end of third grade. There are also research-based strategies that can be employed to help them improve when they are not on track. Retention, however, is not one of those research-based strategies. State leaders need to consider whether the retention piece of states’ reading laws is necessary. Are they focusing their effort on trying to fit the wrong piece into the puzzle?

When it comes to deciding how to spend precious state and local resources leaders should instead focus their efforts on implementing research-based strategies such as high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, full-day kindergarten, requiring strong reading teachers in the early grades, and interventions for struggling readers.

Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.