WASHINGTON — A growing number of states are drawing a hard line in elementary school, requiring children to pass a reading test in third grade or be held back from fourth grade.
Thirteen states last year adopted laws that require schools to identify, intervene and, in many cases, retain students who fail a reading proficiency test by the end of third grade. Lawmakers in several other states and the District of Columbia are debating similar measures.
Not every state requires retention; some allow schools to promote struggling readers to fourth grade as long as they are given intensive help.
Advocates of the new tough-love policies say social promotion — advancing students based on age and not academic achievement — results in high-schoolers who can barely read, let alone land a job or attend college. Literacy problems are best addressed at an early age, they say.
Critics say the policies reflect an accountability movement that has gone haywire, creating high-stakes tests for 8-year-olds. The child, not the school, bears the brunt of the problem, they say, pointing to research that shows that the academic benefits of repeating a grade fade with time while the stigma can haunt children into adulthood.
“This is completely unsettling. I’m concerned about a number of those legislative initiatives,” said Shane Jimerson, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor who has studied retention for 20 years and found that, from a child’s perspective, being held back is as stressful as losing a parent.
“This is deleterious to hundreds of thousands of students,” he said. “But children don’t have a voice. If you were doing this to any group that had representation, it would not be happening.”
Third grade has become a flashpoint in primary education because it’s the stage when children are no longer learning to read but are reading to learn, educators say. If children haven’t mastered reading by third grade, they will find it hard to handle increasingly complex lessons in science, social studies and even math.
In large urban districts, retention policies can affect a large share of third-graders. In the District last year, for example, almost 60 percent of third-graders were not proficient in reading, according to the city’s standardized tests.
“It’s been that way for a long time,” said D.C. Council member Vincent Orange, who is proposing a third-grade retention law that would apply to traditional and charter schools. “And we have to try something different. There has to be a full-fledged assault on the problem in the classroom.”
In some places, retention has morphed from an educational issue into a political fight.
Tony Bennett, Indiana schools superintendent, lost his elected position in November to Glenda Ritz, a teacher who ran because she was angered by Bennett’s third-grade retention policy.
“It was the final straw,” said Ritz, adding that her state should emphasize reading as early as kindergarten and help struggling readers well before third grade. She wants to stop retaining children based on standardized test scores.
Bennett, meanwhile, became state education commissioner in Florida, where the third-grade retention policy has served as a model for other states.
Ending social promotion has become so popular in some policy circles that Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, R, boasted to a recent meeting of the National Governor’s Association that he had accomplished it, though Virginia’s laws actually fall short.
“We essentially put an end to social promotion in third grade by major new third-grade reading incentives,” McDonnell told a panel of other governors on Sunday. “I mean, we just do a disservice to these young people, we all see it in our schools. If they get passed along to eighth, ninth grade, it contributes to the drop-out rate if they’re not able to read.”
Virginia requires school districts to identify struggling readers by third grade and provide intensive help. But students do not have to pass a reading test to progress to fourth grade, and schools are not required to retain third-graders who are weak readers.
Literacy is a struggle for many U.S. children, with 33 percent of all fourth-graders nationwide reading below basic levels in 2011, according to federal data. For minorities, the picture was worse: Half of black and Hispanic fourth-graders were below basic in reading.
Children who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who read well, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
A matter of debate for more than a century, decisions about whether to hold back a child usually have been made by teachers and principals in consultation with parents.
But in an accountability era ushered in by the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, the new retention policies offer little wiggle room. Decisions are based on test scores, not the subjective judgment of teachers and administrators. Parents have little recourse. And individual students bear the impact, as opposed to an entire school being sanctioned for failing to perform.
The new approach began in earnest in 2002 in Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, R, who promoted an education strategy that also featured private-school vouchers, data-based assessments for schools and teachers, charter schools and online learning.
Mary Laura Bragg, who ran Florida’s third-grade retention program under Bush, said it forced elementary schools to get serious about literacy. Principals moved their best teachers to kindergarten and first and second grades, she said. Schools sought state funds for diagnostic reading tests and other help.
“I saw a sea change in behavior,” Bragg said. “It’s a shame that it was the threat of retention that spurred these schools into doing what they should have been doing all along.”
A study that tracked third-graders retained in Florida found that they showed significant academic gains in the first two years, but those effects faded over time. Still, fewer students have been retained each year since the policy took effect, which suggests the emphasis on early reading is having an impact.
After leaving office, Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education to promote his education policies across the country. The foundation, which reported more than $9 million in revenue and assets in 2011, has lobbied and provided technical and strategic help to state officials and lawmakers who want to adopt third-grade retention laws.
Bragg, now a policy director at the foundation, is in frequent contact with lawmakers and education officials across the country. “Our mission is to help spread reform state by state, and a K-3 reading policy is one of those that states are very interested in,” she said.
In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich, R, signed into law the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, which says that starting this year, third-graders who fail a statewide reading test won’t be permitted to enter fourth grade. Similar laws are rolling out in Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Tennessee and Colorado.
Most policies require that schools evaluate children as early as kindergarten and notify parents if their child is below grade level. Schools are required to create a plan for each student and provide intensive reading tutoring, summer reading programs or other help. Most states make exceptions to the retention policy for English language learners, students with disabilities or children who have been previously retained.
Retaining a student can be expensive. In addition to providing additional coaching during the school year and summer programs, districts essentially must add another school year to a child’s academic career.
Paula Peterson, principal at Charles Fairbanks Elementary in Indianapolis said she’s seen children slump under the weight of Indiana’s new law, which took effect last year.
“The children all knew if you didn’t pass, you weren’t going on,” she said, adding that children who failed last spring’s test were demoralized. “A lot of them gave up. They weren’t trying to do any work. The attitude was, ‘What’s the difference? I failed.’ ”
Of 64 third-graders tested last spring, 29 did not pass. After exemptions were granted, 12 children were held back. Seven of those children did not return to Charles Fairbanks Elementary in the fall; the school is in a high-poverty neighborhood where children are frequently moving in and out, Peterson said. That left five students to repeat third grade.
“I know there has to be accountability,” she said. “But I have a problem with anything that hinges on one picture, on saying that one quick snapshot means anything. One test and everything hangs on the balance.”
Cameron Flint, 9, is intensely aware that she must pass the third-grade reading test this month at her school in Evansville, Ind.
“She talks about it, she’s even cried,” said her mother, Bobbie Flint. “She says things like, ‘I hope I go to fourth grade with all my friends.’ ”
Even though she is an honor-roll student, Cameron finds reading difficult and doesn’t perform well on tests. Her teachers notified Flint at the start of the current school year that Cameron was at risk of being held back.
“I freaked out,” said Flint, who learned that Cameron was almost a full grade behind her peers and is mildly dyslexic. Flint hired a tutor and says her daughter has made progress.
“I feel confident she’s going to pass that test,” Flint said. “But I still feel these tests aren’t fair. It’s good to know where your child stands. … But let’s not go so far as saying we’re going to retain your child, and you have no say. Don’t threaten my child and her educational career because of one test.”
Worries about stressed-out children are misplaced, Bragg said.
“The pressure shouldn’t be on the kids, it should be on the adults,” she said.
Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a collaboration between political, education and business leaders to improve literacy, said the country shouldn’t be arguing about social promotion vs. grade retention. If teachers and schools performed well, the debate would be moot, he said.
“Adults should just do what they should be doing, which is to identify the challenges that kids face and respond to those challenges early,” he said.