Third Grade Reading and Retention Policies to Improve Education Outcomes

By Hannah R. Jenuwine
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 2/3 |

Retention as a policy, while it appears to work in places like New York City and Florida, is a highly contested practice with multiple studies showing negative consequences. Studies have shown that grade retention is a significant negative predictor of academic self-concept, homework completion, and self-esteem and a significant positive predictor of maladaptive motivation and weeks absent from school.26 The argument that those low-performing students who are retained are more likely to perform poorly later in their education and drop out of high school begs the question: Are retained students less likely to graduate from high school because they are retained, or because they have characteristics that “predisposed them to drop out”?27 Is it fair or accurate to attribute a student’s decision to drop out of school to retention, if they were already considered unlikely to graduate from high school had they not been retained?

To answer this question, several studies have specifically compared low achieving students who were socially promoted with low achieving students who were retained. Even when compared to similarly low achieving students who are socially promoted, retained students are more likely to continue to perform poorly and ultimately drop out of high school.28 The Minnesota Mother-Child Project compared high school dropout rates of retainees, low achieving students, and a control group; the findings of this study showed that 69% of retainees dropped out, 46% of low-achieving students dropped out, and only 29% of the control group dropped out.29 These studies support that retainees are more likely to dropout compared to their low-achieving peers, suggesting there is something detrimental about retention. In a 1992 study, it was found that by the end of fourth grade, socially promoted students “had gains of 8 months in reading and 7 months in math over their similarly achieving but retained peers, despite receiving no additional intervention.”30 This suggests retention does not guarantee student growth, and social promotion can benefit students.

The long-term benefits of retention policies have also been disputed. A 2004 Chicago study showed that retained students did benefit from repeating a grade, but those benefits were lost after the second year,31 suggesting retention does not benefit students in the long term. A 21-year longitudinal study of retained students showed that retained students were more likely to have poor educational and employment outcomes when compared to “promoted students of the same level of achievement.”32 Other longitudinal studies support the long term negative effects of retention, suggesting that even if students benefit from repeating one year, social promotion is better in the long term. Again, it is important to note many of these studies compare low-achieving socially promoted students with low-achieving retained students. This shows that students who were at approximately the same achievement level reached different (lower) educational outcomes by being retained. The most successful plan of action for struggling students seems to be social promotion with intensive intervention. A 2004 study showed that students who were socially promoted and received educational intervention outperformed retained students.33

If a state or school district wishes their retention policy to be constructive, it needs to include an extensive early identification and intervention component. Both New York City and Florida, as cited above, included identification and intervention pieces into their retention policies to achieve successful student outcomes. There is also much research on the benefits of effective reading instruction and intervention. A 2005 study by O’Connor et al. on reading interventions looked at a layered approach to reading intervention in grades K-3 that included “professional development for teachers in scientifically based reading instruction, ongoing measurement of reading progress, and additional small-group or individual instruction for students whose progress was insufficient to maintain grade-level reading achievement.”34 This method of reading intervention achieved overall improvements in reading including improved reading for at-risk students and decreases in reading disability by the end of third grade, with significant improvements in reading achievements for at-risk and non-at-risk students.35

For intervention services to be effective, they almost must be individualized, early, and continuous. O’Connor et al.’s study also showed that reading intervention programs need to be different than the instruction the student already received in order to make any gains, and that “early and continuous intervention” contributes to positive student outcomes for high-risk students.36 A longitudinal study done in 2013 reinforces O’Connor’s findings that early and continuous intervention is key. This study found that students who receive individualized reading instruction for grades 1-3 “showed the strongest reading skills by the end of third grade compared with those who received fewer years of such instruction.”37 In fact, 75% of students in the study who received three years of individualized instruction performed above the national mean on standardized tests.38 It is very important that these types of early intervention are sustained, because Head Start preschool studies have also shown that initial gains in reading are lost over time if the students receive inadequate instruction.39 If intervention services are fragmented or the same as previous instruction, they will not help students reach proficiency. Programs that focus on professional development and teacher training support the goals and success of early intervention programs.

Professional development is another crucial aspect to the third grade reading intervention and retention policies. As cited, both the New York City and Florida policies focused on professional development and teacher training as components of their retention policies. In Connor et al.’s longitudinal study on individualized learning, student outcomes were very dependent on teacher quality. Students made gains with higher quality teachers and lost those gains with inadequate instruction. Regular classroom teachers, who received professional development, not reading specialists, were able to contribute to positive student outcomes through evidence-based reading instruction.40 Teachers in this study were also given the training and support that enabled them to provide more effective reading and mathematics instruction that was aligned with the recommended Individualizing Student Instruction.41 Professional development in this study included learning to use A2i software, assessment information, and classroom implementation, and teachers were able to learn this material within one school year to “make a meaningful difference in their students’ reading achievement.”42 The research study on layered reading intervention provided teachers two forms of professional development: training in scientifically based reading instruction and in interpretation of assessment results for students.43 By the third year of the layered reading intervention approach complete with professional development, teachers were skilled in reading data spreadsheets and identifying students who were making slow growth in reading.44 In order for the literacy intervention programs to work, teachers needed to be trained and supported to implement them successfully.

Michigan introduced its own bill for a third grade retention policy on October 29, 2013, when Rep. Price sponsored House Bill 5111 that would end social promotion to third grade, and use reading proficiency on the grade three state assessment as a benchmark to continue to fourth grade.45 The bill also states that if a student wishes to enroll in a school beginning in fourth grade, that student must be proficient on the grade three assessment before he or she may enroll.46 If passed, the bill would go into effect in 2016-17, so the first class affected by the policy would be current kindergarteners.47 As introduced, there were many concerns about how this would affect students with learning disabilities, Limited English Proficient students, and students who excelled in other subjects, especially since there was no mention of wraparound services such as early assessment and intervention.

To address concerns with HB 5111, it was amended to include “good cause exemptions” to the retention policy. These “good cause exemptions” would allow students to enroll in fourth grade without meeting third grade reading proficiency on the state exam if the student could demonstrate proficiency on an alternative standardized reading assessment or through a student portfolio, has a disability and an individualized education program, is a Limited English Proficient student with less than two years of English instruction, or if a principal issues a “good cause waiver.”48 The amended bill also includes that students may not be retained for more than two school years and that they may retake the grade three reading assessment.49 The bill is inspired by and modeled after Florida’s policy, as per the recommendation of the Mackinac Center. These “good cause exemptions” are the same as Florida’s current policy.

Also in response to the many concerns about the holes in HB 5111 and its negative implications, Rep. Stallworth introduced HB 5144 on November 11, 2013. Many legislators in the House Education Committee and members of the public giving testimonials were concerned that HB 5111 would punish low-achieving students without supporting them to succeed, with programs that could prevent third grade retention from ever being necessary.50 HB 5144 is tie-barred to HB 5111, meaning that one cannot pass without the other. HB 5144 requires the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) to ensure that students will be proficient in reading by their grade three assessment, so that retention is truly a last resort. The bill outlines a timeline in which the Department will submit a report to the House Education Committee to identify programs that are successful in helping low-performing students reach reading proficiency by April 1, 2014, and recommend or develop reading programs to improve reading skills focusing on diagnostic evaluation, early intervention, tutoring, and mentoring by June 1, 2014.51 A pilot program based on these recommendations will be implemented for the 2014-2015 school year, and early screenings shall be conducted within the first thirty days of each school year.52

Even with the wraparound services offered in HB 5144, many citizens are concerned about the many studies that cite retention’s negative impacts on students. A representative from Ingham County Intermediate School District speaking at one of the House Education Committee hearings said that these policies need to be for the students, in their best interest, and not for adults.53 Rather than focusing on what students need to do to become proficient, adults need to be held accountable and the legislature needs to work with schools as they work to implement these policies. Susan Neuman, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan and an expert on early literacy agrees, saying “They [the legislature] like the get-tough policy. But it’s a terrible strategy. It’s blaming children when you should be blaming the system.”54 A mother and advocate for education who spoke at another hearing felt that enacting HB 5111 would be moving too quickly, and the process needs to be slowed down to ensure that Michigan is preparing its students in grade K-3 before it holds them accountable for third grade reading proficiency.55 Before HB 5111 is passed, HB 5144 needs to be more fully developed to ensure that students are not being punished by being held back without being supported.

Another concern about this legislation is about how it is going to be funded. Providing an extra year of instruction to retained students and intervention services to other struggling readers will be expensive. The legislative analysis of this bill reported that the costs of the retention policy would come out of the School Aid Fund, and could cost between $7,076 and $8,049 per student for the school year 2013-2014.56 There is no financial estimate for the costs of HB 5144’s wraparound services yet, but the bill requires MDE to secure funds for the pilot program from private and public sources, with some funding from the School Aid Fund.57 The estimate of HB 5144’s costs will likely come with MDE’s report on April 1, 2014 or June 1, 2014; however, it is dangerous to pass HB 5144 without knowing how much it will cost or where this funding will come from. Simply saying that the pilot program will be funded from “private and public sources” is very vague and not reliable. Funding for education is very tight, so if HB 5144’s intervention services will be funded by the School Aid Fund, what will be cut to make room for these new programs? There are still many unanswered questions about funding. Critics of these bills say that the current lack of funding for new programs “shows Michigan isn’t as serious as it needs to be.”58 By pushing the issue of funding to a later date by saying “we will find a way to pay for it later” is dangerous, because Michigan may not have the funds to sustain the reading programs. Furthermore, if these programs are not going to be sustained, they are not worth enacting in the first place, because research has shown reading intervention programs must be sustained to be effective.

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