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.
Paul Bonner says
Mass involuntary retention simply does not work. However, I was held back at my parents insistence in second grade. I had a late July birthday and didn’t show much interest in curricular matters in my first go around. I was frequently sent to the office that first year for talking. Part of the challenge could have been a stubborn resistance to my teacher, I later found that I struggled, or more accurately, didn’t try as hard with teachers I didn’t like. In the end, both my teacher and I got what we didn’t want. I was held back, and placed back in her class (I think she retired after my second year). Anyway, when I entered school in kindergarten with my first class, I was smaller and less mature than my peers. I loved sports, but struggled to keep up. By the time I got to fourth grade after the retention I was more competitive athletically and academically. I think the wait worked out. Reflecting on my experience and Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter on hockey players in “Outliers” (Older athletes of the same year outperformed younger ones and were provided greater opportunities to excel), I think one thing we should reflect upon is the date for allowing students in kindergarten. As a student and educator, that date was October 1. It was moved to September 1 in Alabama while I was there. I believe it should be July 1 at the latest. As an elementary school principal, candidates for retention were put through a thorough process that included parental inclusion and a variety of factors including peer interaction, size, and birthdate. We also worked with the parents on a survey to determine if all adults were on the same page. I never retained a student without parent buy-in and emphasized to the parents the role they played helping their child get over the disappointment and adjust to new friends. I was never against retention if it was a community effort while the school psychologist at my first school was absolutely against it. We admired each others work however, and this tension over retention meant that it would be thoroughly vetted before a decision was rendered. Academics were not the consideration we used for retention and we always made sure the student and parent knew this. Much of the problem with mass retention is that the students retained in this scenario have little support from home. These students too often simply label themselves “stupid.” I once ran a middle school summer session with students who had already been retained twice. We focused on interests and experience. A student asked me why school couldn’t always be like this. I assume the SoR advocates buy into retention, because they believe intellect is fixed. Pretty scientific huh?
Nancy Bailey says
I can understand this, Paul, and agree with much of what you say. I was a younger kindergartner, later birthday, starting at age 4, and I sometimes wonder if learning would have been easier if I would have been enrolled a year later. I was an average student but math and science didn’t always come easy for me.
If retention is done it should be carefully considered, not based on one test and probably not in third grade,
Thomas L Simpson says
The incompetent leveled readers balanced literacy nuts tried to convince us nothing was wrong and would have continued to do so all the way until our kids face planted on the literacy test at the end of third grade.
A friend of mine is a special Ed teacher and all she does is teach emotionally ruined 4th graders how to read after years of the whole word nonsense.
A Spalding trained teacher had our kids reading in a week. Nora Chabazi at EBLI can teach a kid to read in 6 hours. These tests you dislike should be administered at the end of kindergarten……not to root out kids who need help, but to root out teachers who need training. It’s absolutely an expectation that all children in a kinder class be reading by the end of the year before they enter first grade.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for commenting, Thomas, but you seem to be advertising Spalding and Nora.
Teaching a child to read in 6 hours is hard to believe. Do you have any peer-reviewed evidence?
There are many anecdotal stories about children and reading, but they are hard to sort through without clear evidence.
This post is about the mounds of research saying retention is terrible.
Thomas L Simpson says
I love the concept of retention, I just think we’re doing it to the wrong group.
Test the children at the end of Kinder. If they aren’t reading yet, make sure they spend 1st grade with a teacher who has shown success with a method that works(OG, Spalding, EBLI, SOR, etc.).
As for the teacher, they get to go to summer training(retention). It’s ridiculous that we have teachers who are 100% effective while also having teachers who are 40% effective.
I know this sounds a little harsh, but I taught high school math during the “math wars”. I had little patience for the other math teachers who blamed the community, culture, race, etc. of our students when we were in private. I tripled the schools math scores in 1 year(Arizona AIMS Test). Kareem Weaver has the right idea, if you aren’t willing to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, get out of education…..or at the very least, go to the very wealthy communities than afford the tutors they are going to need.
Nancy Bailey says
The fact that you think all kindergartners should be reading is concerning. Before NCLB, few thought this way. It isn’t that some Ks don’t read. It’s the expectation that they all should. I encourage you to read some child development books. Also, if you want to state that those programs work, please provide peer-reviewed research. Even OG lacks research.
Thomas L Simpson says
Many of the comments posted on this blog are by adults who were taught to read before kindergarten. You’re coming across as an apologist for ineffective instructors. I personally don’t care what system a teacher uses, just produce results instead of excuses. Use high stakes testing on the adults.
Nancy Bailey says
Not sure how you determined that. I learned in first grade. Again, check out a book on child development. And for the record, you never cited the programs you deemed successful. Also, please refrain from name-calling as you did in a previous comment. Thank you.
Nancy J Flanagan says
Retention is terrible— unless there are extenuating circumstances (a child who is ill, a very young child who would have been better off with another year of pre-school) and full agreement by the teacher, the parents and school support personnel. There are alternatives for kids who have “fallen behind”–tutoring, summer school, at-home instruction– that preserve student self-esteem. As for “miracle worker’ tutors who get kids to read in six hours, my first thought is always that there are reasons why a particular child who isn’t reading suddenly–ta da!– is a reader.
My nephew was a non-reader in 2nd grade. His mother very vocally blamed the school, the reading program, the teacher. They moved to another school (in another state–where his mother wanted to live) and within a week, he was reading. Children who are under 7 or 8 years of age reflect their circumstances and the people they trust. If told they’re not able to read and it’s somebody else’s fault, that becomes truth.
I am also concerned about holding kids back to make them athletically competitive. This was something I started to see, regularly, a few years ago–parents asking to hold back 6th and 7th graders so they could physically mature, to be taller and heavier as they went into HS and started playing interscholastic sports in MS. Usually, these kids were not in any academic danger—just small and not yet physically maturing through puberty. We would sit around the table and listen to Dad talking about Jason’s superb eye-hand coordination and the possibility of an athletic scholarship, once he got to HS and reached physical maturity. The kid’s feelings about being retained at the age of 12 were never questioned. The school usually refused–and some kids were pulled out of our middle school and sent to the nearby charter school, which was “ungraded.”
Nancy Bailey says
I agree with you, Nancy. No child should have to attend school feeling like a failure, and there are many other ways to help children improve.
I had not thought about sports, and your last paragraph is stunning to read, though I believe it. How awful to be manipulated like that. But then, years ago, while visiting the park on a Saturday, I came across a group of little children in full football uniforms listening to the coach yell directions, parents eagerly watching on the sidelines. How many of them now play for the NFL? After seeing that, I will believe almost anything about sports.
Thank you for such a thoughtful reply.
Thomas L Simpson says
It was common practice for parents to “red shirt” their boys and send them to the school whose football team hadn’t lost a game in a decade. It was pretty frustrating coaching in a poor area where kids are sent to school as soon as possible because the parents needed to get to work or thought they were doing the right thing for their kids…….only to have their heads caved in by a kid with a full beard weighing 100 lbs more.
Karen Moran says
I wonder if other factors like not having a consistent Kindergarten age cut-off nationwide contributes to the different learning levels. In CT they have to be turning 5 by 12/31 of that school year to enter Kindergarten. Shouldn’t it coincide with the start of the school year? Many parents who had preschoolers with later birthdays – even August – hold them back another year before starting kindergarten. Some call it “red-shirting” but I think it has taken on a new form with “Kindergarten is the new 1st grade” etc. etc. And puts a lot of pressure on schools to get those Kindergarten-age children into the school system. In the other respect, as someone else said, parents put in a position of needing to send their chiId to school because of financial constraints/work. I so appreciate your perspective Ms. Bailey….thank you. If only public education were properly and equitably funded across the nation, teachers revered for their profession and talent……the list is extensive.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent points! I wonder how K being the new first grade is affecting K admissions and student ages. There’s such pressure to get children ready for third grade for fear student won’t pass the test. It could work both ways when it comes to when a child enters school. Thank you for your insightful comment, Karen.