Third Grade Reading and Retention Policies to Improve Education Outcomes

By Hannah R. Jenuwine
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 1/3 |


Third grade reading proficiency is believed to be an important benchmark in education. The transition from third grade to fourth grade marks the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” other subject material. Third grade proficiency is also an indicator of a student’s later academic success. In a 2010 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 55% of U.S. students from moderate- and high-income families were not proficient in reading in fourth grade, with 83% of U.S. students from low-income families not proficient. This difference in reading proficiencies by income level highlights and contributes to the educational achievement gap in the United States. Because of this recognition of the importance of early literacy, many states are implementing policies that will retain students who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade. However, retention remains a controversial policy, with many studies showing that retained students are more likely to continue poor academic performance and ultimately drop out of high school when compared to similarly low achieving, but socially promoted students. This paper uses third grade reading retention legislation proposed in the state of Michigan as a framework to analyze reading retention policies.

There is currently a debate swirling in Lansing about a proposed retention policy that would hold back students who do not meet reading proficiency by the end of third grade. House Bill No. 5111 would institute third grade reading proficiency as a benchmark to move to fourth grade, and House Bill No. 5144 deals with the interventions needed to prevent retention from being necessary. These kinds of policies are becoming more and more common; in fact 14 states have enacted some version of this policy. While third grade reading proficiency is important as an indicator of a student’s later academic success, there is much research pointing toward social promotion (moving a student onto the next grade level despite lack of proficiency) as being preferable to retention. There have been, however, instances in which a third grade reading retention policy helped improve student outcomes, most notably in Florida. Research-based reading interventions implemented with comprehensive professional development for teachers have proven to improve low-achieving students’ reading skills. As per a recommendation in a Mackinac Center report, Michigan is now looking to implement a third grade retention policy modeled after Florida’s program. While third grade proficiency is an important benchmark and an admirable goal, Michigan’s bills, mostly HB 5144, still need some work to effectively serve our students.

Third grade reading proficiency has been hailed as an important benchmark in a student’s academic career. The move from third grade to fourth grade marks the shift from “learning to read” and “reading to learn” other material.1 In fact, according to the Children’s Reading Foundation, “up to half of the printed fourth-grade curriculum is incomprehensive to students who read below that grade level.”2 Students are expected to build upon the material they learned the previous school year, so without those basic skills low-performing students fall further and further behind. Poor performance in reading in third grade can negatively affect a student through his or her education. Nearly three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade continue to be poor readers in high school.3 It has also been found that students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.4 Because of the cumulative nature of learning, not reading at grade level, even as early as third grade, can effect a student’s education and learning ability later in life.

Third grade reading is important for reading retention

"Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school."

Unfortunately it is even harder and less likely that low-income students will reach reading proficiency by third grade. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2010 reported that 55% of students from moderate- and high-income families are not proficient in reading in fourth grade, while 83% of students from low-income families are not proficient.5 In Michigan for the year 2012-13, 68.1% of third graders met reading proficiency while only 55.1% of economically disadvantaged third graders met reading proficiency.6 These low-income students who are not reading at grade level are about three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate from high school than those students who have never been poor.7 Children living in poverty are more likely to attend poorer schools, and that disadvantage is exacerbated by their more stressful home life.

Another contributing factor to why lower income students do not reach third grade reading proficiency is that they already begin kindergarten at a disadvantage. Low-income students are also more likely to start school at a learning deficit because they do not receive the same kind of verbal interactions with adults that their higher income peers receive that supports language development.8 Studies have shown that vocabulary development by age three can predict third grade reading ability, and that by age 3 children from wealthier families have heard 30 million more words than their low-income peers.9 These findings have been supported by new research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, who studied early vocabulary and language development. She found that by 18 months children from wealthier homes could identity pictures of words they knew faster than their low-income peers, and that by age two children from higher-income families learned 30% more words than children from low-income families.10 Because they do not start kindergarten on an even playing field with their higher-income peers, low-income students are less likely to be reading proficiently by the end of third grade, and less likely to succeed in later years of schooling. The fact that some students are coming into school predisposed to have reading difficulties, heightens the sense of urgency and necessity to make early literacy a priority through third grade reading policies.

Many states are taking notice of the importance of third grade reading, and incorporating it into their public policy. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have instituted some kind of third grade reading proficiency retention policy.11 These state initiatives to target third grade reading proficiency include early identification of reading difficulties, intervention as close to the point of need as possible, and retention as a last resort.12 The RAND Corporation found that third grade retention policies that included early assessments and several interventions had the most successful student outcomes.13

For example, New York City instated a third grade retention policy in 2003 in which students who scored at a level 1 out of 4 (meaning they had “serious academic difficulties”) on their state assessment would be held back (and later retention policies for 5th, 7th, and 8th graders were introduced).14 This policy also included early identification and intervention pieces, with student access to Academic Intervention Services (AIS), differentiated classroom instruction, small-group instruction, and summer and Saturday school.15 NYC offered its AIS to lower-performing readers (those at levels 2 and 3) as space allowed, even though they were not deemed “at risk,” so that these literacy programs were available to all its students. An important component of the success of NYC’s retention program was professional development; teachers were trained in using differentiated instruction and assessment data to help their struggling students.16 There were long-term benefits of this retention policy: 5th grade students who were held back outperformed the control group in 7th grade assessments and retained students felt a “greater sense of school connectedness” than their peers up to four years after they were retained.17

Florida also has a third grade reading retention policy that has contributed to its overall school improvements over the last 15 years. Between the years 1992 and 2011, Florida made the second highest gains in NAEP scores in the nation. From 1998 to 2011 Florida’s average test scores increased 9.1%, Michigan’s average test scores increased 1.3%, and the United States’ average test scores increased 3.4%.18 In fact, in a Mackinac Center report “Michigan vs. Florida: Student Achievement, Education Policies and Proposals for Reform,” Michael Van Beek recommends that Michigan adopt some of Florida’s reading policies, including the third grade reading retention policy. Florida’s 2002 retention policy says that students must score 2 out of 5 on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) to be promoted to fourth grade, but were offered “good cause exemptions” for flexibility.19 These “good cause exemptions” mean that student who did not show grade level reading proficiency on the FCAT could still move onto the fourth grade if they were a Limited English Proficient student with less than two years of English instruction, a student with disabilities with an individual education plan (IEP), showed proficiency on an alternative standardized test or through a student portfolio, had a disability and were previously retained, or already received intensive remediation in reading for two or more years.20 Florida’s “good cause exemptions” ensure that the policy did not “punish” struggling readers, and that there were opportunities for students who did not test well to show reading proficiency or students who excelled in other subjects to move onto the next grade level.

There have been many studies of Florida’s retention policy, which show generally positive results on student outcomes. A Manhattan Institute study of this policy showed that retained third-graders “made significant gains in math and reading” compared to their socially promoted peers, and that those gains were greater in the second year after being retained.21 In 2001-02, only 59% of Florida third graders score proficiently on the FCAT, but in 2007-08, 72% were proficient.22 As in New York City, Florida’s retention program included an important professional development piece, because those schools with “stronger instructional leadership” that “clearly communicated goals, ensured learning strategies were implemented and set a climate of high expectations” showed better student outcomes.23 As could be predicted, there was a “third grade bubble.” Before the retention policy Florida’s third grade retention rate was 3.3% and after it was 14.4%; however, by 2006-07 that rate was down to 8.1%.24 Florida’s retention policy was only one part of its educational reform that contributed to gains over the last 15 years, and because it was implemented in 2002-03, “it could not have been responsible for Florida’s early gains.”25

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