A new CALDER study by David Figlio and colleagues examines the implementation of Florida’s third-grade reading guarantee. The analysts study whether the policy is enforced differently based on a student’s socioeconomic status. The short answer: yes.
Florida legislators enacted a statewide grade retention policy in 2002 requiring that, in the absence of an exemption, students were not to be promoted from third to fourth grade unless they met a minimum reading standard (i.e., meeting the “level 2” benchmark or higher on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) reading exam). However, there are several reasons why a student might qualify for an exemption and be promoted, despite not having reached the requisite level: they have limited English proficiency and have received fewer than two years of instruction in an English as a second language program; have certain disabilities; or have received reading remediation for two years and have already been retained twice between kindergarten and third grade. Moreover, students can also obtain an exemption by demonstrating acceptable reading performance on a reading test other than FCAT that has been approved by the State Board, such as scoring in the fifty-first percentile or above on the Stanford-10, or by demonstrating reading proficiency through a teacher-developed portfolio.
Analysts matched birth data from babies born in Florida between 1992 and 2002 to demographic and academic data for students attending public schools from 2000–01 through 2007–08. In total, they tracked eight cohorts of students totaling over 879,000. Because Florida uses a strict cutoff for determining retention, analysts were able to compare the variations across students of different socioeconomic backgrounds who made the cutoff by a small margin and were subsequently not affected by the policy.
In the first year, descriptive data show that the proportion of retained students increased overall from 3 percent to 15 percent; among those who scored below the cutoff, retention rose from 11 percent to 67 percent. Yet over the six years of policy implementation for which analysts have suitable data, the proportion retained dropped from a high of 15 percent to a low of 6 percent (owing partly to fewer students scoring below the cutoff, possibly because of better reading instruction), but has increased slightly since then. And during the same six years, the percentage receiving exemptions more than doubled from 26 percent to 54 percent.
The key finding, however, is that, controlling for exemption eligibility, scoring right below the cutoff increases the probability of being retained by 14 percent for children whose mothers have less than a high school degree, compared to kids whose mothers have a bachelor’s degree or more. Analysts find that these differences are driven mostly by the fact that kids of well-educated (and presumably affluent) mothers are more likely to be promoted based on the results from teacher portfolios, which are the most subjective mode of exemption. Because other research shows that families in lower socioeconomic classes tend to be less effective advocates for their children (they are, for instance, less likely than middle-income families to request a specific teacher), analysts point to this as the likely cause here, too.
What’s less clear is whether retention is beneficial—a question for which we don’t have definitive answers. Some research shows positive academic outcomes in Florida specifically, but they fade out over time, and it’s hard to know if retention was responsible for the bump, or rather the supports that it triggered. Some also worry about the stigma of holding kids back. Regardless of what research says about the merits and drawbacks of early-grade retention, this study reveals a simple truth: Better-educated moms are working the system in Florida.
SOURCE: Christina LiCalsi, Umut Özek, and David Figlio, "The Uneven Implementation of Universal School Policies: Maternal Education and Florida’s Mandatory Grade Retention Policy," CALDER (September 2016).