Few 3rd Graders are Being Held Back Despite Benefits Revealed in Study

A recent research study has discovered that underperforming third-grade students in Indiana who are held back make significant progress in the following five years.

The study, which analyzed data from 2011-12 to 2016-17, revealed that students who were retained in third grade scored approximately 18 points higher in English language arts and math in fourth grade compared to their low-performing peers who were not retained. These gains continued through seventh grade, albeit at a slower pace.

“I was surprised at the huge … positive effect,” said NaYoung Hwang, a co-author of the report and assistant professor of education policy at the University of New Hampshire. The report was also co-authored by Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri.

One unique aspect of the study is that it compares the progress of third graders who were retained with peers who scored just high enough to advance. These groups are expected to be statistically similar, according to Hwang.

Despite the progress observed, the number of Indiana students held back after third grade has been steadily decreasing. In 2013, 2.4% of students (1,535 students) were held back, whereas in 2016, that number dropped to 1.25% (762 students), as stated by Hwang.

Out of the 3,500 students who did not pass the Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determinations (IREAD3) in 2016, after being given the opportunity to retake the exam during the summer, 762 students were held back. This year, nearly 5,000 students failed the test, but the exact number of students who repeated third grade is unknown.

The enforcement of third-grade retention policies has become inconsistent, acknowledged Bob Behning, a state representative who chairs the education committee.

The study also found no increase in absenteeism or disciplinary issues among the students who were held back. Furthermore, the positive benefits were observed across all student demographics, including race, gender, and family socio-economic status.

However, Hwang noted that previous research on sixth- or eighth-graders who were retained has shown lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates. Further studies and a longer timeframe are needed to determine if third-graders who are held back would exhibit similar patterns.

The Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determinations (IREAD3) requires third graders to score 446 or higher in order to pass. Students who do not meet this requirement must be offered remediation and the opportunity to retake the test during the summer. The state law also allows for exemptions, known as good-cause exemptions, which permit some third graders who did not achieve the required score to advance. This includes English learners, special education students, and those who have already been retained twice.

Hwang conducted the study due to the ongoing debate surrounding retention policies. While more than half of the states allow or require holding back low-performing students after third grade, the actual number of students being retained appears to be decreasing. For example, in Florida, the retention rate dropped from 15% in 2002 to 6% in 2010, according to a study by the RAND Corporation.

In Tennessee, where a new law raised concerns about holding back thousands of third graders, only 900 out of 44,000 students who scored low enough were actually held back (1.2%). Nearly 4,400 students were granted waivers to advance to fourth grade after their parents appealed.

Experts in reading education have differing opinions on the effectiveness of retention policies. Danielle Dennis, dean of the University of Rhode Island’s College of Education, stated that there is limited evidence of long-term benefits and insufficient research tracking students into high school.

Nell Duke, executive director of the Center for Early Literacy Success and a professor at the University of Michigan, mentioned that while retention may not yield long-term benefits, summer programs and small-group reading interventions have been shown to be beneficial, even for students who are not held back.

Duke also argued that the gains observed in seventh grade may not justify retention, considering the additional costs of funding an extra year of school, the potential social implications for students, and the increased risk of dropout. She believes that there are more effective ways to allocate funds and energy to achieve lasting results.

The notion that third grade marks a critical transition from learning to read to reading to learn was also challenged. Duke stated that current educational standards expect children to learn from reading before third grade, and students can continue to develop their reading skills with proper instruction well after fourth grade.

Behning highlighted the recent shift in Indiana’s reading instruction priorities. In the past two years, the state has implemented a law establishing an approved science of reading curriculum list, offering literacy support to elementary schools where less than 70% of students pass IREAD3, and providing grants to teachers and schools that improve students’ reading skills.

Furthermore, in 2022, the state and the Lilly Endowment collaborated to invest $111 million in literacy education, marking the state’s largest expenditure in that area. Some of these funds were used to hire instructional coaches for approximately 200 elementary schools, provide targeted support for students in need of reading assistance, and offer a stipend for K-3 teachers participating in professional development in the science of reading.

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