The ever wise Jan Resseger points out that the Ohio House overwhelmingly voted 82-10 to end the policy of holding back third graders who don’t score proficient on the state reading test. Now, she hopes that the State Senate will complete the elimination of this disastrous experiment. The idea that children will become better readers if they are failed is nonsense. Years of experience and research shows that failure leads to negative consequences, causing a loss of confidence, a sense of failure and higher dropout rates in later years.

She writes:

Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee, enacted by the legislature in 2012 and implemented beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, requires that students who do not score “proficient” on the state’s third grade reading test must be retained for another year in third grade. Brown reports that,”Ohio has retained around 3,628 students per year.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been dogged promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but last May, the Columbus Dispatch’s Anna Staver traced Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.’”

But it turns out that promoters of the Third-Grade Guarantee ignored other research showing that when students are held back—in any grade—they are more likely later to drop out of school before they graduate from high school. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney reported: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

Why does holding children back make them more likely to drop out later? In their book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass explain the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” Berliner and Glass continue: “Researchers have estimated that students who have repeated a grade once are 20-30% more likely to drop out of school than students of equal ability who were promoted along with their age mates. There is almost a 100% chance that students retained twice will drop out before completing high school.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 9-97)

In a recent report examining the impact of Third-Grade Guarantee legislation across the states, Furman University’s Paul Thomas explainsthat short term gains in reading scores after students are held back are likely to fade out in subsequent years as students move into the upper elementary and middle school years. But, Thomas quotes the National Council of Teachers of English on how the lingering emotional scars from “flunking a grade” linger: “Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • “retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • “basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • “retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.”

Here is what Thomas recommends instead: “States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.” Specifically, Thomas urges policymakers to eliminate: “high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd-5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input)…. Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.”