Back to Skills

Guest Post: Is Third Grade Retention a Help or Hindrance?

Back to Skills

We asked some of the journalists attending EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University in May, to contribute posts from the sessions. You can find additional content, including video, at EdMedia Commons. Dave Murray of the Grand Rapids Press is today’s guest blogger.

Educators are pretty clear that children need to read at grade level by third grade so they can use that skill to learn other subjects.

But what if they don’t?

More states are embracing the idea of holding back those students to repeat the third grade. Researchers Martin West (Harvard University) and Shane Jimerson (UC-Santa Barbara) squared off in a passionate – and occasionally loud – debate over whether retention prepares students to be successful when they eventually move ahead, or send them careening down a path to dropping out later on.

West said one of the goals is to put pressure on districts not to have to make that decision in the third grade– making improvements in kindergarten, first and second grade instruction so students are better prepared by the time third grade rolls around.

“One of the dirty secrets of American education is that teachers who are ineffective in grades three through eight get moved to kindergarten through second grade where there are no accountability systems in place,” he said.

West is an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and deputy director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on education policy and governance.

He said Florida was one of the first states to adopt the retention rule, with 14 states and the District of Columbia now with policies in place or under consideration.

Studies have shown big short-term improvement in reading and math, and that two years after being retained, students show a full year of academic progress.

Coalitions such as the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading point to figures showing two-thirds of fourth-graders are not proficient readers, including four out of every five low-income students.

But Jimerson questions the statistics and said there are disturbing trends for students that are held back. The key, he said, is a series of interventions aimed at helping students long before they hit third grade.

Jimerson is in UCSB’s department of counseling, clinical and school psychology in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.

He disputes the idea that students offered “the gift of time” will catch up with peers, saying they’ll only show improvement with targeted interventions that schools often lack.

“If the students didn’t get help they need the first time through, they’re almost guaranteed for failure the second time,” he said.

He said black and Hispanic students in Florida are retained at disproportionate levels.

Jimerson said research shows students who are retained are more likely to show emotional distress, have low self-esteem, develop poor peer relations, use drugs and alcohol, and show violent behavior – and that third-grade retention is one of the more powerful predictors of dropping out when the students are older.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading calls for a focus on three areas, including early childhood education with more access to books and adults reading to the youngest students.

The group also calls for cracking down on chronic absenteeism and instituting programs to prevent summer learning loss.