States debate holding back 3rd graders

More than a dozen have retention policies based on standardized reading requirements.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

States are grappling with whether to hold back students who do not meet third-grade reading requirements, as they respond to learning loss stemming from the pandemic.

The dilemma, voiced in debates across the country, is whether the stigma of being held back is outweighed by the benefits of mastering a particular skill before advancing. 

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) recently signed into law a so-called retention policy, joining more than a dozen other states including Florida, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin in holding back third-graders who don’t meet reading standards. 

Elsewhere, Nevada‘s new Republican governor wants to restore his state’s policy, Michigan’s governor wants to abandon her state’s, and Tennessee is wrestling with whether to change its new law before it goes into effect this year.

Casey Taylor, policy director for ExcelinEd, a nonprofit chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said a retention policy coupled with other programs helps kids catch up. She said opponents focus only on forcing children to repeat a grade and not on other components of laws such as Arkansas’s, which provides aid for families to pay for tutoring and deploys 120 literacy coaches around the state. 

“We see them as prevention and intervention laws that help provide the critical skills that kids need before they move on,” she said.

Groups including the National Council of Teachers of English oppose retention policies because, they argue, forcing students to repeat a grade does more harm than good. 

In a resolution published in 2015, the group states that retention policies “disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students,” and that they are “strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.”

“Retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective,” the group stated. 

There is a focus on third-graders because it is seen as a pivotal transition period in which students are shifting from learning to read into a mode of reading to learn, according to Harvard University researcher Martin West.

Bush pioneered the retention and intervention law model, and other states have viewed Florida as a success story. In 2022, the most recent year with data available, Florida’s fourth-graders scored higher on National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests than almost any other fourth-graders in the country.

While support for such practices doesn’t neatly fall along party lines, Republicans have been more likely to embrace the approach. In Nevada, newly elected Gov. Joe Lombardo (R) wants to bring back a retention policy after the state repealed its requirement in 2019, he said in his state of the state speech

In Michigan, the legislature recently passed a bill to repeal the retention section of the state’s 2016 education law after the number of third-graders who failed the state’s standardized reading test surged. The measure is awaiting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) signature. Retention opponents argued that the policy punishes kids for falling behind and that minorities were in recent years far more likely to be held back.

Tennessee, which enacted its retention law in 2021, is weighing whether to modify its law to give third-graders who scored just below the cutoff a better chance at advancing by requiring officials to consider the results from a second state-approved test. 

The law is set to go into effect this year, possibly forcing thousands of third-graders to be held back. Only about a third of Tennessee students read at grade-level, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. About 40% are approaching grade-level standards.

At least 15 states currently have retention laws on the books. Taylor encouraged any states considering repealing their retention policies to stay the course, citing relative success in Mississippi.

“We’re looking at it as the opportunity to give kids the critical skills that they need before we let them move forward,” Taylor said. “Framing it and understanding the real intent is critical.”

Michigan has given its seven-year-old law enough time to test its effectiveness, House Education Committee Chair Matt Koleszar (D) said as the chamber passed its repeal earlier this month. 

“We’ve seen it in other states and there’s zero data from any other states that suggests retention is the way to go,” Koleszar said. “We’ve got enough data to know it’s not working.”