Holding Back 3rd Graders Who Can’t Read Is Only Part of the Answer

The purpose of a promotion policy is for students to be ready, not retained
Summer reading camps, like the one shown here at Moss Hill Elementary School in Kinston, North Carolina, can mitigate learning loss.
Summer reading camps, like the one shown here at Moss Hill Elementary School in Kinston, North Carolina, can mitigate learning loss.

The effects of the pandemic are reigniting discussion of state policies requiring students who have not achieved basic reading proficiency by the end of 3rd grade to repeat the grade. Retention, though, is just part of a strategy that, to be effective, needs to include a variety of other tactics aimed at making sure students are learning to read.

In 2019, only 35 percent of 4th-grade students in the U.S. performed at or above proficiency in reading, according to the Nation’s Report Card. Students of color and those living in poverty or rural areas had an even lower probability of achieving proficiency. The pandemic-related learning disruptions are bringing renewed focus on making sure all students are reading on grade level.

But too many remain fixated only on the possibility of retention at the end of 3rd grade, ignoring facts and data suggesting that a comprehensive approach to strong, foundational literacy skills puts more students on the path to success in school and in life.

Thankfully, over the past decade, more states have adopted Read by Grade 3 policies or strengthened their existing literacy policies by focusing on the following goals: equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills to teach all students how to read; teaching all students “the code” of learning to read; collecting student data to identify which students need more support; intervening with proven resources; and empowering parents and families to help their children at home.

This is where the conversation should start: at the beginning, when successful policies provide intensive intervention and support for families and educators to prevent any students from falling behind.

A Strong Start: Accountability and Transparency in the Lower Grades

Comprehensive literacy policies such as those in Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina detail strategies for improving literacy outcomes for all students beginning in kindergarten and continuing through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. Prevention, interventions and progress monitoring are critical components of these policies that are not discussed enough.

Prevention of reading difficulties begins with evidence-based grade-level teaching grounded in the science of reading.

Interventions, such as small-group or individual instruction, are provided to those students who, based on the results of a universal screener and other data, are identified as having a reading deficiency.

Progress monitoring tracks students’ learning along the way and gives teachers insight into whether the interventions are working.

It is important that school leaders and teachers talk to parents and inform them about the supports in place to help students meet grade-level expectations. Parents and families are children’s first teachers and can serve as partners in their success.

In addition to using evidence-based reading instruction to prevent reading difficulties and interventions to remediate reading challenges, comprehensive literacy policies ensure that parents are notified of a child’s progress early and often so that they can partner with teachers to support their learning.

There are a wide range of supports available to families, including access to tutoring or other instructional supports before, during, or after school, as well as summer reading camps or other summer opportunities to mitigate learning loss. In Florida, struggling readers have access to Reading Scholarship Accounts, which provide parents with funds to purchase additional reading services.

Addressing Inequities

I have grappled with the question, “Why does there have to be a law to ensure that students learn to read?”

As a parent, I want my child to have access to the best and most knowledgeable teachers—those who know which resources to use to address skills and topics that are challenging to students.

As a former teacher, I know the reality, which is that many schools considered at-risk and/or located in poverty-stricken areas with limited resources have teachers who are least prepared to address these challenges.

Studies show that children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, and poor black and Hispanic students who are not proficient readers are eight times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school. It doesn’t have to be this way; effective state policy can and does make a difference in the lives of students.

In Mississippi, a state that passed a comprehensive early-literacy policy in 2013, students from low-income homes now outperform their peers nationally, with Black, white, and Hispanic students from low-income homes in Mississippi achieving scores that were higher than the national average for low-income students in all four NAEP subjects in 2019. Similarly, in 2002, with most 4th graders performing well below the national average on NAEP, Florida invested in a comprehensive early-literacy policy. By 2017, the sunshine state ranked fourth in the nation in 4th-grade reading performance overall and substantially outperformed the national average in every subgroup.

The Gateway Grade

If a child is struggling to read after these interventions and supports, retention is an option. The retention decision may be difficult for parents, but—over the long term—that additional year of learning can change a child’s life for the better. A study of Florida’s promotion policy found that “after six years, the achievement gains from retention remain substantial when compared to peers in the same grade.” The most devastating failure may be to allow a child to move on when they aren’t ready.

To be clear, the purpose of a promotion policy is for students to be ready, not retained. Beginning to prepare proficient readers as early as kindergarten benefits all students—and introducing a promotion policy can help educators focus on that important goal. A recent study that examined the impact of 3rd-grade promotion policies found that “introducing 3rd-grade test-based promotion policies in Florida and Arizona led to statistically significant and meaningful average test-score improvements within the 3rd grade before the policy retained any students.”

The ability to read is the foundation for every child’s learning. Families in states with strong early-literacy policies have the opportunity to help their child from a very early age to become a proficient reader and successfully navigate life. Expanding such policies would help to make sure that opportunity is extended to families in every state.

Kymyona Burk is the Policy Director for Early Education at ExcelinEd.

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