How can anyone who claims the Science of Reading is real think it’s OK to retain a third-grade child based on one test or for any reason?
If ever evidence or science existed involving education, understanding the rottenness of retention would be it. Yet some of the same people who believe using phonics (and more) is the one-size-fits-all scientific reading miracle seem fine with retention.
This is a crack in the glass for SoR science because it makes it look political. Retaining third graders because of a test may drive parents to leave public schools.
Children are devastated by retention. Once a child is retained, it changes their world. In Student Ratings of Stressful Experiences at Home and School, Anderson, Jimerson, and Whipple (2008) found that it rated high with various stressors.
Across grade levels, those events rated as most stressful by children were: losing a parent, academic retention, going blind, getting caught in theft, wetting in class, a poor report card, having an operation, parental fighting, and being sent to the principal.
When a child is kept back, they are more likely to be more physically developed in middle school than their peers. This certainly causes a child to rethink school and want to drop out.
In 2001, that’s right, 2001, Shane R. Jimerson’s Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century summarized studies of a previously published literature review about retention between 1990 and 1999, comparing this research with studies about retention done in the 1970s and 1980s.
In isolation, neither social promotion nor grade retention will solve our nation’s educational ills nor facilitate the academic success of children. Instead attention must be directed toward alternative remedial strategies. Researchers, educators, administrators, and legislators should commit to implement and investigate specific remedial intervention strategies designed to facilitate socioemotional adjustment and educational achievement of our nation’s youth.
Some SoR enthusiasts say if children had been given evidence-based instruction with phonics, no child would need to be retained. But even if this were true, why would they be on board for retention today when science is more confident of the problems with retention, especially third-grade retention based on one test, than the SoR?
It’s hard to believe Floridians ever permitted retention, since its researchers identified its harmfulness years ago. Many students have been retained in third grade throughout the years.
It’s perplexing to see legislators in other states endorsing it, like it’s a good thing, when the research about it is clear. It’s good that Michigan will no longer do it, but many other states continue to practice grade retention.
Furman professor Paul Thomas, who has written extensively about the SoR, describes retention here and presents a map showing the states currently subscribing to holding third graders back.
The same promoters of the SoR seem to love retention and are trying to connect it to Mississippi, where they appear to have higher test results in fourth grade.
The promoters of third-grade retention seem connected to former Governor Jeb Bush, who, for some strange reason, hitched his education star to third-grade retention based on a test. How sad that he didn’t promote lowering class sizes in K-3rd grade instead.
Like the governor, those who sign on to his ExcelinEd nonprofit are retention believers.
Here’s the literacy policy director from ExcelinEd, discussing retention in Mississippi, and why they believe the test scores there are good now.
Repeating third grade allows students to come into fourth grade able to read and accomplish needed tasks, said Casey Taylor, the early literacy policy director for ExcelinEd, a nonprofit that supports retaining kids if they don’t meet reading standards. “It’s not just retention for retention’s sake; it’s retention for learning’s sake.”
This is misleading. If you keep students who have reading difficulties back in third grade, the reading scores in fourth grade will be higher, and any improvement students may show after being retained is likely temporary. It’s better to provide children with more assistance as they move along with their peers.
In a 1990 study, Synthesis of research on grade retention, Shepard and Smith found:
Although grade retention is widely practiced, it does not help children “catch up!” Retained children may appear to do better in the short term, but they are at much greater risk for future failure then their equally achieving, non-retained peers.
Research covering the harm of third-grade retention is straightforward. Why states sign on to retention like it’s a miraculous elixir is bizarre, not to mention damaging. It’s regrettable since there are many ways to help a child struggling to learn that don’t involve making them feel bad about themselves.
Remember, there’s a high chance a child who is retained will drop out of school later. No child should be told their failing. They can and should be assisted with their learning difficulties.
Here are some ideas:
- Lower class size K-3rd grade. This will make it easier to provide children with individualized assistance and help children when they’re learning to read.
- Research reading programs in local school districts. Every reading program should have peer-reviewed studies to show how or whether children benefit from the program.
- Make sure teachers are prepared. Every K-3rd grade teacher should graduate from a reputable university where they were prepared to teach reading and have certification.
- Every school should have reading specialists. Every school should have reading specialists who have studied corrective reading and understand reading difficulties.
- Provide children with well-prepared, and well-paid, paraprofessionals. Teacher assistants can be especially supportive of teacher goals for children.
- Loop first and second grade. Teachers will get to know students better and there will be no need to hold a child back.
- Provide a multiage class. A child’s disabilities blend into the class and they might get assistance being around younger and older students.
- Evaluate the child for learning disabilities. Children with disabilities need more one-to-one, small group instruction.
- Talk with parents. Sometimes a problem at home can affect how a child does on a test and it might be temporary.
- Use alternative assessments. Some children don’t do well on tests, and can show their abilities by alternative assessments, i.e., teacher interview, or classwork.
Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century. School Psychology Review, 30(3), 420–437. https://doi.org/10.1080/02796015.2001.12086124
Shepard, & Smith, M. L. (1990). Synthesis of research on grade retention. (Other Topics; with related article). Educational Leadership, 47(8), 84–88.