Indiana schools are embarking this month on a massive experiment, one with potentially far-reaching consequences for thousands of young students.
Third-graders will be taking a new standardized test called IREAD-3, designed to measure whether they are reading at grade level. Most students who don’t pass – either now or in a re-test in the summer – will be forced to repeat the third grade.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on 8- or 9-year-old kids. And it’s not at all clear from the research that holding slow readers back will help them in the long run.
The Indiana reading program, given final approval in February by the State Board of Education, is modeled on an initiative that Florida adopted in 2002. Emily Richmond reports in The Atlantic that several other states, including Arizona and Oklahoma, are starting down the same path.
Indiana’s approach is even tougher than Florida’s, however. Indiana allows only three categories of good-cause exemptions from the no-pass, no-promotion rule: students with disabilities, students who aren’t proficient in English and students who have already been retained twice.
In Florida, there’s also an exemption for third-graders who can demonstrate, through a teacher-selected portfolio of written work, that they can read at grade level. In effect, Florida teachers may put a thumb on the scale for children who are ready for fourth grade but bomb the test. Not so in Indiana.
The state Department of Education has said that students who don’t pass could be promoted to fourth grade in other subjects; they just have to be retained in reading. But as a practical matter, that’s not likely to happen. The students will be coded by the state as third-graders, and they will be required to retake third-grade ISTEP-Plus exams in math and language arts the following year, even if they passed those tests the first time around.
Retention vs. ‘social promotion’
Supporters of test-based retention argue that “social promotion,” passing students to the next grade regardless of how much they’ve learned, causes them to fall farther behind their peers, until they have no hope of catching up. That’s especially true, they say, for students who don’t learn basic reading skills by third grade, after which they should move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
But even if you think social promotion is misguided, it doesn’t necessarily follow that retention should be based on a single test, ignoring the judgment of teachers and parents. And there are alternatives to making a student repeat an entire year of schooling, such as intensive remediation, before- and after-school instruction and summer school.
And while Florida’s third-grade retention policy has been in place for 10 years, there has been little published academic research evaluating it. Florida Department of Education officials point to the fact that the state’s test scores have risen since the policy took effect, and some achievement gaps between white and minority students have narrowed. But the department hasn’t been involved in any peer-reviewed, longitudinal studies of retention, said information specialist Jamie Mongiovi.
Elsewhere, studies have found grade-level retention to be associated with negative results, including decreased self-esteem and a much greater likelihood of dropping out of school. The Florida Association of School Psychologists urged the state to repeal the law, citing negative effects of retention and data showing that black and Hispanic students were more likely to be retained than white students.
Mixed results from research
Three major research reviews between 1975 and 2001 concluded there was little evidence that retaining students helped them in the long run, according to a policy brief from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Several studies from the past decade focused on Chicago Public Schools, which implemented test-based retention in the mid-1990s for students in third, sixth and eighth graders.
Jenny Nagaoka and Melissa Roderick at the University of Chicago found that students who were retained continued to struggle to meet academic standards, and 20 percent of them were moved to special-education classes. “In this report, we focus on the question: Did retaining these low-achieving students help? The answer to this question is definitely no,” they wrote.
Brian Jacob of Harvard and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young University examined the Chicago results and concluded that retention helped third-graders academically but not sixth-graders. In a separate study, they found that being retained in eighth grade made it less likely that students would graduate but retention in sixth grade had no significant effect on graduation.
The one Florida study that we found was by Jay P. Greene and Marcus Winters of the University of Arkansas. They examined two years of data for students who were retained and for students who had similar scores on state tests but were promoted. Their conclusions: retained third-graders did better academically in the year after they repeated the grade, and the gains increased in the second year.
Greene has a reputation as an outspoken education reform advocate, and his and Winters’ research was supported by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank devoted to conservative, free-market principles. But their paper, published in 2007, didn’t claim to be the last word. It said more work was needed to determine if Florida’s approach was smart and cost-effective.
Last week, Greene told School Matters by email that he and Winters have a new article, accepted for publication in an academic journal, that finds “the positive effects of the retention policy endure through seventh grade. The benefit shrinks somewhat over time but it continues to be positive and significant.”
Other researchers are reportedly examining the Florida data and may come to different conclusions, however. And we should keep in mind that “positive effects,” in this context, refers to higher scores on standardized tests: an important outcome, but not the only result of effective schools.
Meanwhile, for Indiana children who struggle to pass IREAD-3, the question of whether repeating third grade will help, or hurt, is anything but academic.