The Importance of Early Literacy and Third Grade Retention

Research shows that students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers who are proficient readers. (For more, see here.) As states work to improve student achievement, a focus is being placed on third- grade literacy skills.  This emphasis has resulted in several different efforts connected to early literacy and third-grade retention.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a collaborative effort of funders, nonprofit partners, states, and communities across the country, and its focus is raising awareness about these issues. Supporting a comprehensive policy approach to addressing these challenges, the Campaign equips parents, caregivers, and childcare providers with the knowledge they need to foster language development, and promotes access to preschool and full-day kindergarten, especially for low-income children and supports for students who are struggling readers in the primary grades.

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) recently released a summary on state third-grade reading policies. This year alone, 13 states passed legislation aimed at improving early literacy outcomes, many of which include grade retention, bringing the number of states (plus the District of Columbia) with statutory policies governing the identification of, interventions for, and/or retention of struggling readers in preschool to third grade to 32.  In addition, ECS issued a detailed policy analysis with two case studies entitled, Third Grade Literacy Policies: Identification, Intervention, Retention, in March 2012.  This issue also merits thoughtful consideration because economically disadvantaged students are disproportionately impacted by grade retention policies according to national data. (See The Condition of Education 2009, Table A-18-1, page 176).

The Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution released a related policy brief written by Martin R. West, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  The paper, Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?, includes a review of the history of grade retention as well as the costs. West studied the results of Florida’s third-grade retention policy that has been in place since 2003 and found that retained students benefit from Florida’s interventions, perform at higher levels than their promoted peers in both reading and math for several years after repeating third grade, and are less likely to be retained in a subsequent grade.  It must be noted that not all research on grade retention supports similar positive outcomes. (For more, see here and here.)

West offers the following policy implications for states to consider:

  • Improving early grade reading skills is an urgent national priority that will require states to: (1) ensure that students at risk of reading difficulty have access to high-quality early childhood education; (2) develop early identification systems and target struggling readers for intervention; and (3) improve the general quality of instruction in the early grades, especially grades K-2.
  • Test-based promotion policies are not a substitute for a comprehensive strategy to reduce the number of struggling readers, but can be a useful component of such a strategy.
  • Test-based promotion policies are most likely to succeed when accompanied by specific requirements for additional research-based reading instruction and adequate funding for implementation.
  • Test-based promotion policies should balance (1) the desire to provide local educators with discretion and (2) the goal of increased accountability and access to focused support.

The Campaign, ECS, and West all strongly support the need for a comprehensive approach regarding third-grade literacy policies that includes early identification of struggling readers, an array of evidence-based interventions addressing individual student needs, communication with parents, and grade retention where appropriate and necessary. All of these elements were part of the Florida third- grade retention program and given the conflicting research, effective retention policies will necessarily include them.