Okay, here’s one where I’m genuinely torn. Today’s Washington Post included an article entitled “States draw a hard line on third-graders, holding some back over reading”. A number of states, including the usual reform-minded suspects such as Florida and Indiana, have adopted a policy of holding back students who cannot read at the end of third grade. Their reasoning: After third grade students are expected to read for information, and students who remain functionally illiterate by fourth grade are heading for trouble. As the article explains:
Literacy is a struggle for many U.S. children, with 33 percent of all fourth-graders nationwide reading below basic levels in 2011, according to federal data. For minorities, the picture was worse: Half of black and Hispanic fourth-graders were below basic in reading.
Children who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who read well, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
But kids pay a steep price for being held back as well:
Critics say the policies reflect an accountability movement that has gone haywire, creating high-stakes tests for 8-year-olds. The child, not the school, bears the brunt of the problem, they say, pointing to research that shows that the academic benefits of repeating a grade fade with time while the stigma can haunt children into adulthood.
“This is completely unsettling. I’m concerned about a number of those legislative initiatives,” said Shane Jimerson, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor who has studied retention for 20 years and found that, from a child’s perspective, being held back is as stressful as losing a parent.
My guess is that like so much in education, we face a difficult trade-off. When parents, teachers, and even students know that failure has serious consequences, resources and effort will flow toward solutions. The article describes how many schools – and families – are stepping up to the challenge. On the other hand, I’d hate to see such a policy enforced inflexibly.
What do you think?