In 2022, seventeen states mandated that schools hold back students who aren’t meeting reading standards by the end of third grade, and eight others allowed it. Since then, however, Michigan has repealed their requirement—joining Nevada as the only state to do so—and others are considering legislation to gut their policies. Such efforts are driven by worries about holding back growing numbers of students harmed by pandemic learning loss. But these repeals wouldn’t help struggling students catch back up. On the contrary, they’d only sweep the problem under the rug.
In 2012, Ohio lawmakers enacted the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, a significant early literacy reform package. Under the initiative, schools must administer diagnostic reading assessments to students in grades K–3. If students are identified as off track, schools must notify their parents and create improvement plans. The policy also requires schools to retain students who, based on state assessments or state-approved alternative exams, aren’t meeting reading standards by the end of third grade. To improve their reading skills, schools must provide such students with intensive interventions such as summer reading programs or tutoring.
In the ten years since the Guarantee became law, there have been multiple attempts to water down or eliminate the retention provision. The latest effort, House Bill 117, aims to repeal the requirement by prohibiting districts from holding students back based on their scores on state assessments. Backers of the bill argue that the state should be emphasizing literacy instead of standardized tests, and claim that retention has a negative impact on students.
There are a few issues with these arguments. First, state leaders are emphasizing literacy. On top of the policy’s existing focus on improvement efforts from kindergarten through the end of third grade, Governor DeWine recently unveiled a plan to significantly strengthen the state’s early literacy efforts, and recommended investing $174 million in additional state spending to do so. The governor’s plan would require schools to use curriculum and materials that are aligned with the science of reading, cover the cost of professional development for teachers, and provide literacy coaches to schools and districts with the lowest reading proficiency scores.
Second, implying that standardized tests and early literacy are mutually exclusive is wrong. Assessments are a crucial part of any early literacy effort. Without them, it’s impossible to gauge how well students can read. Local tests—including those that are teacher-designed and -administered—are important, as they offer immediate feedback to help teachers plan lessons and identify which students need extra help. But state assessments are equally important because they serve a different purpose. Unlike classroom assessments, state tests track growth (or lack thereof) over time. They’re comparable across districts and regions, which makes it possible to identify and measure achievement gaps. They also objectively measure student performance against state standards—benchmarks that are designed to gauge whether students are reading on grade level and will be ready to succeed in the upper grades.
Third, critics are ignoring a trove of data that refutes their claims that retention hurts students. In fact, research conducted in several states indicates that retention, in combination with intensive supports, has a positive impact on students’ short-term and long-term success. Let’s take a look at a few examples from around the nation.
It’s imperative to talk about Florida when talking about early literacy. Like Ohio, the Sunshine State requires schools to identify K–3 students who exhibit a “substantial deficiency” in reading, notify their parents, and provide intensive interventions like a minimum of ninety minutes of daily reading instruction and summer reading camps. Florida has also retained students who score below a certain threshold (with some exceptions) on the state reading test since 2002. In the two decades since, research studies have found positive impacts from retention. Consider the following:
- A 2015 study, completed by Guido Schwerdt, Martin West, and Marcus Winters, and updated in 2017, found that retention in third grade increased students’ high school GPAs, led them to take fewer remedial courses, reduced retention probabilities in future years, and had no negative impact on graduation.
- A 2018 report on the costs and benefits of test-based promotion found that the threat of retention led to “statistically significant and substantial” improvements in math and reading performance within third grade prior to retention. It also led to significant and substantial gains in eighth grade math and reading, and increased the probability that students would earn a diploma.
- A 2019 study focusing on English language learners who were held back in third grade found significant academic gains for those who were retained, as well as reductions in later remedial course-taking.
Mississippi passed its early literacy policy in 2013. Much like Ohio’s, it requires students who don’t reach a minimum score threshold on state tests to be retained and receive additional support and interventions. In the decade since, the Magnolia State’s impressive academic progress has been dubbed a “learning miracle.” Improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been particularly noteworthy; from 2011 to 2022, Mississippi ranked first among states in fourth grade reading gains.
According to a working paper from the Wheelock Educational Policy Center at Boston University, retention played a big part in these overall improvements. The results show that students who were held back via the state’s retention policy scored more than 1 standard deviation higher relative to their barely promoted peers by the end of sixth grade. In other words, students who were retained scored, on average, around the 62nd percentile in English language arts when they were in sixth grade. Meanwhile, comparable students who weren’t held back scored, on average, in the 20th percentile.
A recently published analysis identifies two reasons why the state’s “purposeful retention” policy has been crucial to its success. First, it’s much more than simply repeating a grade. By law, students receive plenty of extra support and interventions, including a minimum of ninety minutes in reading instruction based on the science of reading. Second, it acts as “an accountability tool for the system’s adults, designed to support them in changing their practice.” Mississippi didn’t just retain struggling readers. It also heavily invested in the adults who are responsible for helping them by adopting high-quality curricula and materials, offering professional development in the science of reading, providing literacy coaches, and changing teacher preparation programs. In short, retention played a crucial role in “aligning the system’s adults—teachers, parents, and administrators—around meeting the needs of students.”
Ohio’s neighboring state of Indiana has had a retention policy since the 2011–12 school year. Like Mississippi, struggling receive additional support that’s based on the science of reading. And like Mississippi and Florida, Indiana offers evidence that retention can have a positive impact. A report published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University used a regression discontinuity design to compare retained students to those who barely passed the state’s promotional threshold. They found that, in the fourth grade, retained students earned much higher state test scores than their peers who weren’t held back in both reading and math. These gains persisted through seventh grade, though the magnitude faded somewhat over time. There were no significant impacts from retention on disciplinary or attendance outcomes.
After seeing all these data, one might wonder why Ohio—which has had a retention policy for over a decade—hasn’t seen similar progress. Although there were noticeable improvements in state assessment data prior to the pandemic, 40 percent of Ohio third graders currently aren’t proficient in reading. NAEP scores have also been largely flat.
The lack of progress is likely due to Ohio’s long history of backing off on policies that set high standards for students and schools, including in early literacy. Annual attempts to water down and eliminate the Third Grade Reading Guarantee are influencing implementation efforts, which in turn impacts student outcomes. It’s also important to recognize that Ohio’s current early literacy policy isn’t as comprehensive as those in other states. Mississippi, for example, didn’t just identify struggling readers and intervene. State leaders went all in on the science of reading and flooded teachers and schools with support. Ohio, on the other hand, hasn’t championed the science of reading or made any effort to ensure that schools are following the research.
Governor DeWine’s recently proposed early literacy plan would cover many of the areas that the Guarantee did not address. Its defining characteristics—adopting high-quality curricula and offering teacher professional development aligned with the science of reading, as well as providing literacy coaches—were instrumental to Mississippi’s success. But so, too, was retention. If Ohio lawmakers go through with their latest attempt to eliminate the Guarantee’s retention provision, they won’t just be ignoring research and positive results from other states. They’ll be undercutting Ohio’s promising push on early literacy. For the sake of Ohio’s students, let’s hope they change their minds.