Division 14 of HF 2380 , the education reform bill, requires the Board of Education to establish rules that would, among other things, require that a third grade student demonstrating a deficiency in reading be “retained” — i.e., not allowed to move forward to fourth grade with the rest of his/her class.
This idea sounds good, at first. Obviously, promoting an illiterate child to the next grade year after year does a horrible disservice to the child, and to society — especially if this practice eventually produces an illiterate adult, albeit one with a high school degree. However, the research is pretty iffy as to whether or not this type of retention program really improves literacy and eventual high school graduation rates — here’s a good article setting out some of the concerns. And here’s a 2005 article that ran in a Florida newspaper when Florida started their 3rd grade retention program.
I’m not a teacher, or a school administrator, or an early learning expert. But to me, instead of arbitrarily designating third grade as the magic year that we are going to get tough on illiteracy, it just seems preferable to focus on putting programs and positive incentives in place to help ensure that children are, in fact, literate at the end of third grade. Here’s an interesting article with some suggestions for such programs.
One problem with the retention provision is the logistics of the whole thing. The bill says that third graders who are held back will be required to take special classes, targeted to their weaknesses, and generally follow a different schedule than the other third graders. So we have a child who has been separated from his/her peers (who have gone on to fourth grade) — but this child isn’t really in third grade either, since he/she is taking different classes, on a different schedule, from the other third graders. What if there’s only a few kids who get held back — is the school required to design special classes and provide teachers for these two kids? Or what if there’s only one child held back? Just seems like it would be a really horrible, isolating experience for these kids.
Also, the bill requires the school to re-test the child on a regular basis, and states that when and if the child becomes sufficiently proficient in reading — whether that’s after two months, or four months — the school must go ahead and promote the child to fourth grade. So now we have a fourth grader who has spent the first several months of fourth grade in third grade, and whom is now presumably behind the other fourth graders in terms of reading (which he or she already has problems with), math, science,etc. How frustrating will this be for the child, not to mention the fourth grade teacher?
The retention plan would cost a lot of money and time, so why not just spend the money and time necessary to (1) identify children w/reading problems as early as possible and (2) once identified, provide these children with targeted, ongoing, research based tutoring (or a special reading class, or before/after school class)? Yes, these kids would be singled out, to some extent, for extra help — but being required to take an extra class or after school tutoring would be a much less drastic approach to the problem, and would allow these kids to remain a part of their original class/peer group.