Let’s Be Careful About Holding Back Our Third Graders

Throughout the 2015 legislative session, there was a push in some states toward a policy requiring the retention of third-grade students who do not meet a third-grade reading level. This kind of policy is pursued, at least in part, on the theory that after third grade, students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Based on the theory, it is very difficult for students to catch up once they’re promoted beyond the third grade. Instead of catching up, students are more likely to not receive the additional services and support they need, leading them to fall further and further behind their peers. Nevertheless, the consequences of holding students back shouldn’t be ignored, especially if adults aren’t doing everything possible to help kids learn before holding them back a grade. Unfortunately, not every state pursuing a third-grade reading policy is taking the precautions necessary to safeguard students. Take for  example, a recently failed bill out of New Mexico. The proposed New Mexico policy (as described by Alexander Jung Cotoia on our blog) was missing several key elements that would have provided adults and students with the tools they need to ensure all students are reading well by the time they reach the end of third grade. As it was structured, many of those resources were missing and many more students than necessary would have been held back. Here are a few things that I would have liked to see in New Mexico’s bill:
  1. Teacher professional development and/or targeted change in teacher preparation programs Intervention plans created by schools are not going to be effective if teachers are not given the tools and training to help them identify struggling students early on, or if they are not given additional tools and training to help them catch students up who are far behind. This is especially true if teachers are not supplemented by reading coaches.
  2. Reading coaches Reading coaches and similar resources need to be provided to any school or district required to hold back students based on reading scores. New Mexico’s bill required early identification and intervention of students who aren’t reading well in K-3, which are important components of this policy, but it provided zero guidance on how to go about it.
  3. Funding The New Mexico bill not only failed to provide any guidance for how schools should intervene, it provided no resources. No preparation, no professional development, no reading coaches, no additional funding whatsoever for the identification or intervention of students. Districts would have been required to dip into their own budgets, and then parents would have had to pay for interventions if students were not proficient after ninth grade.
  4. Consideration of the drop in test scores New Mexico was going to set the base scores for these cut-offs using 2012-2013 data, which didn’t allow for an adjustment to the state’s new standards and the PARCC assessment, thereby leaving more students vulnerable to facing retention.
  5. Exceptions to the rule New Mexico’s bill did allow exceptions for English-language learners, students who have already been held back in earlier grades, special education students, and students who demonstrate proficiency on another assessment. Even with those provisions, this bill still did not provide enough opportunities for students to show they’re ready to move on to fourth grade—for instance, by taking the test again after attending summer school, or by presenting a portfolio of student work demonstrating their reading ability.
If done well, third-grade retention policies have the potential to help struggling students. But these policies have the unintended effect of punishing students for the shortsightedness of adults. They can dismiss the very real effects that retention has on students (including their self-esteem) and don't often provide enough funding, resources or exceptions to focus on students who need the most help.  
Valentina Korkes is the Deputy Director of Policy at Education Post.
Valentina Payne
Valentina Payne joined Bellwether Education Partners in 2021 as chief of staff to Andy Rotherham on the External Relations team. Prior to Bellwether, she spent seven years at brightbeam, where she most recently served as its chief growth officer, overseeing operations, finance, fundraising, and strategic growth of the organization.

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