Drawing the line in third grade?

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?


  1. Mrs. Hime

    I taught third grade in Texas for several years. At that time a student had three chances to pass the TAKS or they were retained. However, they could appeal, go before a committee, and possibly move on to fourth. Over 4 years I had a couple of students that would not pass the on the first try but did pass on the second. I never had one that went to a committee. I now teach in Oklahoma, we are facing no pass, no promotion in the coming year. I do think a third grader should read on level by the end of the year, but I also don’t think we should have 11 year olds in third grade. I think third grade is to late to hold a student back. If there is a problem in third grade, there was probably a problem in k or 1.

  2. Carolyn Sharette

    Another way to look at retention is more “globally” – meaning, not looking at the one child, but for a moment thinking about the whole system.

    One of the biggest needs we have is for our at-risk students’ parents to get involved in their education. In our experience, they really want to and will get involved if there are clear, meaningful ways for them to do so. Unfortunately, one place we fall down on the job pretty terribly is in setting standards that parents can see and which they can participate in helping their child to reach.

    What if we had VERY clear standards and held student accountable to them for promotion? For example, if you are a 3rd grader by the end of the year you need to read at 110 words per minute, and comprehend a particular level of text complexity, have your math facts memorized and be able to complete them in a certain period of time. If not, you wouldn’t be recommended for promotion. Were this the situation in America today, parents would help ensure their child met the standard. They would get involved very quickly. They would find tutors (even if they couldn’t afford it).

    I think we do parents a dis-service by lying to them about their child’s abilities by promoting them automatically each year and not having a set standard – a bar to reach every year that is clear and defined. We just pass students on year to year and they drop out at some point because they don’t have the skills to “make it” anymore. This is tragic and very dishonest. We owe it to parents to be able to tell them PRECISELY where there student is performing and hold them accountable to ensure they are working with us, as a team to get their child to the finish line each year.

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