Should Schools Hold Back 3rd Graders

Educators like to say that third grade is the year when students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

About 1,500 students — or one of every eight who completed third grade in from the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District in June — failed the standardized reading test given to all North Carolina third graders in the spring. These students have been mandated to attend four days a week for the past six weeks a class.

Under a recent law similar to those in more than a dozen states, such students in North Carolina may be required to repeat the grade. The law, being applied this year to third graders for the first time, poses a set of thorny educational challenges.

Fourteen states in 2012 enacted policies either mandating or strongly recommending that schools hold back students who could not read properly by third grade. Districts in Arizona and Colorado also offered summer school for struggling third-grade readers for the first time this year, then will consider whether to hold back some of them before the new school year begins.

While the summer courses are likely to make some difference, teachers here and around the country say the third-grade laws are another example of lofty educational goals paired with insufficient resources.  Although many of the new state laws do include provisions requiring schools to identify and support students who show signs of reading difficulties as early as kindergarten, the biggest focus does not come until third grade, along with the consequences for schools and students.

In Florida, one of the pioneers in holding back third graders because of inadequate reading skills, all teachers are required to assess children’s reading levels starting in kindergarten and to offer extra support for children who have trouble learning to read.

Florida introduced its policy in 2002, and between that year and 2013, the percentage of fourth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose to 39 percent from 27 percent, one of the largest improvements in the country. Research using Florida test results has also shown that, on average, students who repeated third grade performed better on standardized reading tests through middle school than peers who had scored just a few points above the cutoff for moving up to fourth grade. But lasting results are harder to document. The percentage of Florida eighth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose from 29 percent in 2002 to just 33 percent in 2013, similar to increases elsewhere in the country. Other studies show that students who must repeat a grade drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers.

In North Carolina, the law originally mandated a repeated grade and summer school for any third grader who could not demonstrate proficiency at reading either on the end-of-year standardized test or other measures, including portfolios amassed by teachers. The policy offered exemptions for students with learning disabilities or those who had been learning English for two years or less. After pressure from parents, teachers and advocacy groups, the Legislature modified the law to offer school districts and principals more flexibility in assessing students’ reading abilities and in placing them after third grade. Also, while districts had to offer the summer reading classes, struggling students were not required to attend.

With states starting to align standardized tests with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states, more students have fallen short of proficiency guidelines than in the past. That could mean many more third graders subject to the new policies about repeating the year.

All students who attended the summer classes took a test at the end to measure their progress. Later this month, principals in Charlotte will decide which of the students must repeat third grade.

Reading experts said children should not be in such a position this late in elementary school.

There are a number of questions that school systems should answer:

  1. 1.   Can a six-week course make up for what students have failed to learn in the kindergarten through the third grade?
  2. 2.   What are being done to insure that parents are reading to their children starting when a child is born?
  3. 3.   Where is the money going to come from when school budgets have been cut to the marrow?
  4. 4.   Where do school systems find strong reading curricula to teach non-readers how to read?
  5. 5.   Where are the funds to teach third grade teachers how to increase the reading skills of deficient readers?