Maryland Considers Holding Back Third Graders with Low Reading Skills

A new Maryland literacy policy may result in the retention of third-grade students for a year if they do not meet specific reading benchmarks on state assessments or “show adequate reading skills for advancement to fourth grade.”

If approved, Maryland would align with over half of the states that allow third-grade student retention. The Maryland Department of Education is seeking public feedback on the proposal until July 19.

This initiative follows recent decisions by the state Board of Education and the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Accountability and Implementation board to set ambitious targets to enhance student performance. Maryland currently ranks 40th in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and aims to reach the top 10 by 2027.

Emphasizing the importance of literacy in education, Tenette Smith, executive director of literacy programs and initiatives at the state Department of Education, highlighted the role of reading skills in community development and educational equity. “Addressing students’ needs and ensuring access to high-quality education are crucial,” Smith stated.

The proposed literacy policy will introduce a reading intervention scheme for students from kindergarten to third grade who require additional reading support or have identified reading deficiencies.

Students in these grades will undergo multiple screenings throughout the school year, including assessments for dyslexia. They may also receive specialized before- or after-school tutoring focusing on phonics, comprehension, and vocabulary from trained individuals in reading science.

The policy also mandates free professional development for staff as part of the reading science program to enhance their skills.

If a student shows reading challenges during the year, parents will receive written notices. Third-grade students held back will receive increased dedicated reading instruction compared to the previous year, daily small group sessions, and continuous monitoring of their reading progress.

Exceptions to advancement to fourth grade include students with disabilities under an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a Section 504 plan that specifies accommodations for educational participation.

Students who have had less than two years of instruction in an English-language development program may also qualify for an exemption.

Students granted an exception will continue to receive intense reading remediation and additional services.

The policy prohibits the retention of students in the third grade for a second time.

Smith noted that similarities exist between Maryland’s policy and one in Mississippi, with focus areas tailored to Maryland, including Ready to Act and state provisions to aid students with reading challenges.

‘Innovative Approaches’ Needed

According to a report by the Education Commission of the States in January, approximately 26 states and Washington, D.C., have implemented retention policies for third-grade students who struggle with reading. Recent legislative moves in Indiana align with practices similar to Maryland’s proposed policy.

An analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2013 highlighted that students failing to achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade are at higher risk of not completing high school, particularly for low-income, Black, or Latino students.

Smith emphasized the shift in academic requirements as students transition to fourth grade, involving advanced word analysis and independent reading tasks.

Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost, set to retire from teaching, raised concerns about tutoring availability, citing ongoing teacher shortages. She advocated for reading intervention within the school day for better student access.

Bost emphasized the importance of maintaining a balanced curriculum that includes arts education for well-rounded student development alongside literacy programs.

The Maryland Board of Education will review the policy on July 23. Those interested in providing feedback can access the survey here or send comments via email to literacy.msde@maryland.gov before July 19.

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