A post on Diane Ravitch's blog has raised the topic of grade retention.
Laura Chapman: Who Is Behind the “Read by Third Grade or Be Retained” Campaign?
There is a national read-by-grade three campaign. The practice of holding students back a grade is not new, but in the olden days it was never based on test scores alone and certainly not based on scores from national tests. I am no expert in reading, but I have learned to question how questionable policies proliferate.
Right now, The Annie E, Casey Foundation is a source of the national “Read by Grade 3” campaign. It is financed by about thirty other foundations and corporations. You can read about the investors here: http://gradelevelreading.net/about-us/campaign-investors
The Annie E. Casey Foundation is also the source of widely cited and dubious research about reading. For example, the Foundation sponsored “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation (2010, updated 2012)” by Dr. Donald J. Hernandez, sociologist at Hunter College (more recently at the University of Albany, State University of New York). I find no evidence that this study was peer-reviewed. https://www.aecf.org/resources/double-jeopardy/
We've known for over a century that retention in grade does not cure low achievement. The focus of the post and comments on Diane Ravitch's blog is the "Read by Grade 3" movement and the practice of states to retain students in Grade 3 until they pass the state reading test.
Usual media coverage of the states' third-grade retention plans (or as I call them, third-grade punishment plans) usually includes the caveat that retaining students in third grade will "damage their self-esteem." Unfortunately, there's often no follow-up discussion about how damaged self-esteem is itself often a cause of poor academic achievement.
The range of discussion on Ravitch's blog covers the gamut of usual arguments about retention in grade. Elementary teachers are to blame for sending students to middle and high school unprepared. Students fail because they are lazy, absent too often, or don't take school seriously. Retention is needed because "we have to do something."
Most students who are retained in grade because they can't read "at grade level" don't show any improvement by two or three years after retention. In fact, students who are retained often perform worse than those who have been "socially promoted." There is so much research on this that we should have learned by now not to retain students. So why do American Schools retain nearly a million students a year?
The academically questionable report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that is mentioned in this article correctly asserts that there's a correlation between low graduation rate and poor reading skills at the end of third grade and a correlation between low graduation rate and poverty. The report also suggests that some parents won't, or are unable to help their children. The authors list things to help students improve, such as increased preschool opportunities and supplemental programs paid for with state and federal dollars. Nowhere does it say that retention in grade is beneficial. Neither does the website of the campaign for grade-level reading, 3rd Grade Reading Success Matters. Their site suggests early childhood interventions and community outreach programs. [Whether retention in third grade is included in their "agenda" isn't stated clearly on the web site. Many states now retain students who fail a third-grade reading test even though this practice isn't supported by research.]
It is unlikely that retaining students in third grade -- or at any grade -- will help their middle school or high school reading achievement. Elementary teachers can't always compensate for the lack of resources available...or large class sizes...or pandemics. There are programs available to help students who are struggling, but those don't fit every student...nor are they available everywhere. Why do we think that students should stop learning to read upon entering a certain grade? Secondary teachers aren't trained to teach reading, but perhaps some basic instruction on reading development should be included in the curriculum for secondary education certification.
And what of the offensive suggestion that students can't read "at grade level" because they skipped school or because they misbehave? A reminder that correlation does not imply causation might be appropriate here. Isn't it possible that a student who is academically behind their peers might avoid going to school or act out because either of those two behaviors is less emotionally painful than failing? One could just as easily say that students skip school because they can't read well and it is a waste of their time, as well as a painful experience, to sit in class all day long and be made to feel stupid. Or that students act out in class because the feelings of frustration over their inabilities are difficult to deal with. We can't say that students' low achievement is due to behaviors - behaviors that might actually be caused by their low achievement. It's easy to place blame, but the fact remains that not all children learn at the same rate. Some students struggle to learn.
Finally, "grade level" reading is an arbitrary standard. What is "at grade level" in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (average income $127,553) might not be the same as what's "at grade level" in Detroit (average income $29,481) because there IS a correlation between poverty and reading achievement. "Grade levels" like standardized test cut scores, aren't set by the teachers who know their students. They are set by book publishers, test companies, and state departments of education. Sometimes they are set by people who have no idea what is appropriate for a particular age group. Perhaps the term "grade average" would be a better term to use. Still, statistically, any average means that half of a given group of students will perform below the other half...because not all children learn at the same rate.
Students need to learn how to read. But unless we, as a society, are willing to pay for the resources needed, there are going to be some students who struggle and don't achieve as quickly as we would like. Each student's situation and abilities are different. Teachers will do everything they can to help their students, but sometimes, at the end of a school year, some students will still need more. That's just how it is. Instead of blaming the previous year's teachers, or the students, or the students' parents, we should do what we can to help students progress from where they are.
In the short run, it might be cheaper to skimp on resources for struggling students when most students will learn anyway, but if we are serious about our intention to provide a high-quality public education for all students, then we are obliged to provide more for the students who need it.
One size only fits some.