Improving reading results, especially for Black and Hispanic students, is one of our top educational priorities. The numbers are dire, as we see almost half of these youngsters performing “Below Basic” on the fourth grade NAEP—a truly alarming level of performance.
Yet there are a few bright spots. As we look at those NAEP results, only two states rank in the top five for both Black and Hispanic students: Florida and Mississippi. They also place first and second overall on the demographically adjusted NAEP rankings published by the Urban Institute. Even more impressive, both have risen from near the bottom of the rankings twenty years ago.
They are doing something right.
Much has been written about Mississippi’s successful reading program (a good review of its multifaceted approach is here). Similar reading initiatives, based on a common playbook, have been rolled out in several states over the last decade.
Yet many states with similar reforms have not had the same success. Consider Arizona and Nevada: both have improved, they still significantly lag Mississippi and other top states for Black and Hispanic students.
That could be because they lack a key feature of Mississippi and Florida’s approach: a vigorously applied, test-based student retention policy—the so-called “third-grade reading gate.” As others have written, this is “the elephant in the room.”
Most states retain few students. Data from 2017 show a national retention rate of 1.7 percent for grades K–3 (versus 7 percent for Mississippi and 4 percent for Florida, among the nation’s highest). National grade retention levels have been falling for decades.
That’s because most educators believe that retaining students is ineffective and even harmful; some have called it “educational malpractice.” According to Linda Darling-Hammond, an emeritus Stanford education professor who now serves as President of the California State Board of Education,
“The findings are about as consistent as any findings are in education research: the use of [retention based on] testing is counterproductive: it does not improve achievement over the long run, but it does dramatically increase dropout rates.”
That presents us with a puzzle: how could something that many educators call "educational malpractice" be one of the core components of the nation's most effective reading programs?
First, retention in these states isn’t just “repeating the grade.” In Mississippi, retained students are given, at minimum, an individualized reading plan, assigned to a highly qualified teacher, and receive at least ninety minutes of daily reading instruction with targeted interventions. Florida’s approach is similar. More effective retention is likely to lead to a better result.
Second, the research that led to the conventional wisdom—based primarily on twentieth-century studies—has been superseded by newer studies, generally larger and more statistically sophisticated, which tell a somewhat different story. While retention per se does not seem to be a highly effective student intervention—it’s mixed—it also does not have the negative consequences, like higher dropout rates, found in earlier studies.
This raises the question: If retention is a mixed intervention for students, why would it have a big impact on the result?
A likely reason is that a fixed, public promotion standard is one of the most effective tools we've found to change the actions of adults. Retention policy may or may not be effective for the kids who repeat a grade, but it is very effective in getting adults—teachers, administrators, even parents—to focus their attention and change their behavior.
The prospect of student retention forces all these adults to come to grips with the fact that a child they care deeply about is significantly behind in one of the most crucial areas of their education. This often comes as a surprise to parents and sometimes also to the teacher. Yet that arresting realization, made vivid by the risk that a wonderful child might be retained, helps them focus on the problem and change their own behaviors.
It takes a lot to change settled adult behavior. We are trained to do things a certain way, and our routines are comfortable. Change is hard and, despite the best intentions, usually we just can’t sustain it. Anyone who’s ever made a New Year’s resolution knows this firsthand. System-wide change in how reading is taught—across multiple districts, schools, and classrooms—calls for very powerful and effective tools to make sure that the changes will stick. Student retention has proven to be a very effective tool.
Retention by itself is likely of little value; it needs to work in support of an effective reading improvement program. Oklahoma and Louisiana have K–3 retention levels comparable to Florida and Mississippi, but without their robust reading programs, these states do not have similar results. The point is to support a system-wide improvement program, not punish teachers or students for disappointing results.
Yes, it feels unfair to retain a child who, through no fault of their own, has been failed by adults. But it’s also unfair to fail millions of children, year after year, by not doing what’s needed to change how the system works.
Todd Collins is one of the organizers of the California Reading Coalition and a school board member in Palo Alto, California.