Not every state requires retention; some allow schools to promote struggling readers to fourth grade as long as they are given intensive help.
Advocates of the new tough-love policies say social promotion — advancing students based on age and not academic achievement — results in high-schoolers who can barely read, let alone land a job or attend college. Literacy problems are best addressed at an early age, they say.
Critics say the policies reflect an accountability movement that has gone haywire, creating high-stakes tests for 8-year-olds. The child, not the school, bears the brunt of the problem, they say, pointing to research that shows that the academic benefits of repeating a grade fade with time while the stigma can haunt children into adulthood.
“This is completely unsettling. I’m concerned about a number of those legislative initiatives,” said Shane Jimerson, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor who has studied retention for 20 years and found that, from a child’s perspective, being held back is as stressful as losing a parent.
“This is deleterious to hundreds of thousands of students,” he said. “But children don’t have a voice. If you were doing this to any group that had representation, it would not be happening.”
Third grade has become a flashpoint in primary education because it’s the stage when children are no longer learning to read but are reading to learn, educators say. If children haven’t mastered reading by third grade, they will find it hard to handle increasingly complex lessons in science, social studies and even math.
In large urban districts, retention policies can affect a large share of third-graders. In the District last year, for example, almost 60 percent of third-graders were not proficient in reading, according to the city’s standardized tests.
“It’s been that way for a long time,” said D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who is proposing a third-grade retention law that would apply to traditional and charter schools. “And we have to try something different. There has to be a full-fledged assault on the problem in the classroom.”
In some places, retention has morphed from an educational issue into a political fight.
Tony Bennett, Indiana schools superintendent, lost his elected position in November to Glenda Ritz, a teacher who ran because she was angered by Bennett’s third-grade retention policy.
“It was the final straw,” said Ritz, adding that her state should emphasize reading as early as kindergarten and help struggling readers well before third grade. She wants to stop retaining children based on standardized test scores.