“We essentially put an end to social promotion in third grade by major new third-grade reading incentives,” McDonnell told a panel of other governors on Sunday. “I mean, we just do a disservice to these young people, we all see it in our schools. If they get passed along to eighth, ninth grade, it contributes to the drop-out rate if they’re not able to read.”
Virginia requires school districts to identify struggling readers by third grade and provide intensive help. But students do not have to pass a reading test to progress to fourth grade, and schools are not required to retain third-graders who are weak readers.
Literacy is a struggle for many U.S. children, with 33 percent of all fourth-graders nationwide reading below basic levels in 2011, according to federal data. For minorities, the picture was worse: Half of black and Hispanic fourth-graders were below basic in reading.
Children who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who read well, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
A matter of debate for more than a century, decisions about whether to hold back a child usually have been made by teachers and principals in consultation with parents.
But in an accountability era ushered in by the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, the new retention policies offer little wiggle room. Decisions are based on test scores, not the subjective judgment of teachers and administrators. Parents have little recourse. And individual students bear the impact, as opposed to an entire school being sanctioned for failing to perform.
The new approach began in earnest in 2002 in Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who promoted an education strategy that also featured private-school vouchers, data-based assessments for schools and teachers, charter schools and online learning.
Mary Laura Bragg, who ran Florida’s third-grade retention program under Bush, said it forced elementary schools to get serious about literacy. Principals moved their best teachers to kindergarten and first and second grades, she said. Schools sought state funds for diagnostic reading tests and other help.
“I saw a sea change in behavior,” Bragg said. “It’s a shame that it was the threat of retention that spurred these schools into doing what they should have been doing all along.”
A study that tracked third-graders retained in Florida found that they showed significant academic gains in the first two years, but those effects faded over time. Still, fewer students have been retained each year since the policy took effect, which suggests the emphasis on early reading is having an impact.