Millions of children are not able to read on grade level by the end of third grade. In response, state legislatures are passing new reading policies, many of which require students to repeat third grade if they are struggling readers.
Florida, an early adopter of literacy policies that include this threat — known as retention — has been joined in recent years by several states with similar policies for holding children back. But is retention an important or even necessary part of the solution to children's reading deficiencies? That is a question left unanswered.
Officials in Florida say their reading approach works. In 2003, Florida began requiring students who score at the lowest level on the state reading test (unless they are exempt) to repeat the third grade and be provided with reading interventions to help them improve.
And since 2003, Florida has seen state and national reading test scores rise. But so far researchers have not parsed the multiple components of Florida's "test-based promotion policy," which include prevention, retention and intervention. So we do not really know what role retention actually plays in students' reading improvement.
A policy brief published by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., highlights this lack of information. The brief, written by Martin West, an assistant professor at Harvard University, explains that students who scored at the lowest level of Florida's reading test in third grade and were retained under Florida law performed significantly better on math and reading tests two years later than their peers who scored just high enough to be promoted to the fourth grade.
By eighth grade, however, the positive effects fade.
Florida's reading law is much more than a retention policy. Third-graders must be given the opportunity to participate in a summer reading program, have an academic improvement plan, be assigned a "high-performing" teacher and receive intensive reading intervention. Elementary schools must provide all students with 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction every day. Schools must assess students' literacy skills as early as kindergarten and notify parents if their child is already below grade level. This year the state invested more than $100 million to ensure schools could deliver these services in kindergarten through 12th grade.
West's study does not provide any insight into what might have been possible by just providing these services without retention; neither does it tell us how essential the retention piece is. Previous studies on retention have shown that students who are retained are no better off. Some research shows that retention can have negative long-term impacts on children, including an increased chance of dropping out of school. Retention is also costly. On average, repeating a year of school can cost about $10,000 per pupil.
Mary Laura Bragg, who worked for the Florida Department of Education and helped to implement Florida's reading initiative, recently suggested at a Brookings event that the threat of retention forced schools to get serious about ensuring children know how to read.
The policy, she said, goaded change in K-2 reading instruction. Elementary school principals began moving their best teachers to kindergarten and first and second grades. "It's a shame to me that threat of retention is what got elementary schools doing what their primary focus is, which is to teach kids how to read," Bragg said.
But can we know that this threat was the essential piece? And couldn't there be better incentives for pushing schools, parents and students to focus on reading on grade level?
If anything, the Florida case shows the importance of investing in a comprehensive approach. States should consider 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.
States should not, however, hastily join the states that have included third-grade retention in their plans. The jury is still out on whether it is a necessary part of the solution.