Pandemic Prompts Some States to Pass Struggling Third Graders

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Citing mental health concerns, some states are delaying third-grade retention.

This story was originally posted by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

At least 29 states and Washington, D.C., allow or require schools to hold back struggling third graders who don’t pass state standardized reading tests, the result of ongoing attempts to close the nation’s achievement gap. But as families wrestle with online learning, a pandemic economy and mental health difficulties, some states are revisiting that approach.

Two states, Florida and Mississippi, decided this year that pupils who fail reading assessments won’t be held back. Lawmakers in a third state, Michigan, are debating the same policy.

Proponents of letting students pass despite failed assessments say states should focus resources on strengthening classroom instruction and literacy intervention efforts. Critics counter that students who aren’t retained will continue to struggle academically.

This year’s discussions echo an ongoing debate in education circles about the value of retention policies. On the one hand, holding back pupils, in theory, would give them an extra year to improve academic performance. On the other hand, studies have shown that Black and Hispanic students are retained at disproportionate rates, and many education experts say intervention, rather than retention, is the key to helping students who struggle.

“These kids are little. They’re like 8-years-old and they’ve only been reading for two or three years,” said Franki Sibberson, a retired third-grade teacher and a former president of the National Council of Teachers on English. Sibberson said she understands the importance of assessments, but that focusing on one high-stakes test doesn’t provide teachers with a complete picture of a student’s progress. This emphasis on test scores makes it difficult to meet the child’s needs, she said.

“I feel like the trauma of being in a global pandemic is big for many of our children,” she said, “and the idea of possible retention because of a test just would add another level of trauma during a time when there's already so much trauma for children.”

At least 17 states and Washington, D.C., have mandatory retention laws; another 12 states allow it but don't require it. Yet some states have reconsidered those laws, at least temporarily.

Mississippi’s state board of education decided this winter that it would suspend the retention policy for third graders this year, allowing all pupils to pass on to the fourth grade even if they fail the standardized reading test. The state made similar accommodations for older students, allowing high schoolers who took algebra, biology, English II and U.S. history end-of-year tests this year to eventually graduate even if they fail the exams.

In Florida, the state board of education issued an emergency order this spring that allows third graders to pass on to fourth grade—with a parent’s input—even if they fail state assessments. Local school districts must consider students’ academic performance.

Similarly, the state allowed districts to waive state assessment for students graduating this year. Schools are authorized to promote students based on their academic records.

The U.S. Department of Education granted states flexibility on testing this spring, including altering the administration of tests and waiving accountability and school requirements under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA.

Although the waivers are in place, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran still encouraged students to take the assessments.

“All sides say you want accountability,” Corcoran said during a March news conference. “We gotta go out there and get the measurement. When we get the measurement, then we can sit back, look at the data and make the decisions that are best for children.”

Other states are considering combining delays with a future expansion of retention policies.

In Michigan, a controversial law passed in 2016 allows third graders to be kept back if they fall a grade level behind in reading on a statewide exam. Last year, more than 56,000, or 5%, of the state’s third graders would have flunked because of the law, which took effect in 2020.

Now lawmakers are debating legislation that would delay test-based promotion for third graders this spring, but then broaden the retention policy to both third and fourth graders next year. If lawmakers fail to pass the bill this session, nearly 2,700 at-risk third graders could repeat because of low test scores.

Michigan Republican state Sen. Ken Horn, who co-sponsored the bill that would suspend the third-grade law, said kids need time to catch up this year because of the pandemic. Despite this, Horn supports the state’s retention policy.

“It’s not the kids, but the administrators who run the schools,” Horn told Stateline. “By golly, if we can send a man to the moon, if we can make cars that can drive themselves, we should be able to teach third graders how to read at a third-grade level in the third grade. It doesn't get any simpler than that.”

Horn said he is confident the bill will pass out of the legislature, but he fears that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, will veto the bill or not sign it. Since she was elected governor in 2019, Whitmer has said she wants to overturn the state’s retention law, The Detroit News reported.

A spokesperson in Whitmer’s office didn’t directly respond to Horn’s comments about whether the governor would veto or sign the legislation but said the governor “has and will continue to oppose the state’s retention laws.”

Michael Rice, Michigan’s state superintendent, issued a statement last week slamming both the law and the proposed legislation.

"Third grade retentions are bad public policy, and even more so if expanding to students in two grades," said Rice. "Local school districts need to work carefully with families to focus on reading supports and minimize retentions and the resultant adverse impact to children."

A similar scenario played out in Alabama, where Republican Gov. Kay Ivey last week vetoed a bill that would have pushed back third-grade retention. Ivey called the delay “hasty and premature,” but said she would advise the state’s Department of Education to gather data to see whether a delay would be warranted later.

Earlier this year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee proposed stricter rules to enforce the state’s retention law. The governor’s proposal mandates that students who are held back must either retake the state test or attend summer or after-school tutoring programs beginning in the 2022-2023 school year.

Texas lawmakers pondered whether to give parents the power to decide their child’s fate. That state’s bill, which passed from the House to the Senate Education Committee, did not proceed before the legislature adjourned May 31.

Nationally, the percentage of public school students retained each year has been falling, from 3.1% in 2000 to 1.9% in 2016, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Still, Black and Hispanic students were retained at higher rates than White students nearly every year, in some cases at much higher rates.

And during the pandemic, many of those students have been the least likely to have stable access to remote instruction, most likely to miss in-person support, and most likely to have lost a family member or friend to COVID-19, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher’s membership organization, in a statement.

“Instead of focusing on placement based on a test score, districts need to consider the impact of the pandemic on the whole child and focus on what is needed to ensure that their social, emotional, and developmental needs are met before they can resume unfinished learning,” Pringle continued.

Several studies assert that third grade is a pivotal point for young learners because it is when children learn to read. By fourth grade, kids are reading to learn. When kids aren’t literate by third grade, the setback is an early indication that the child may never catch up or that they may drop out of high school, according to The Children’s Reading Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on early childhood education.

But research studies haven’t found strong evidence that retention helps students’ long-term academic achievement, according to a 2018 report by the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit organization focused on education policy. Additionally, retaining a student is expensive, and districts must bear the cost.

Florida’s third-grade reading policy, implemented in 2002, has served as a model for other states, according to a 2012 report from the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C. The report showed some positive outcomes for students who were retained in third grade, including short-term gains in math and reading. However, these improvements became statistically insignificant by the time students entered seventh grade, the report found.

Franci Crepeau-Hobson, an associate professor of psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Denver, echoed Sibberson’s remarks about trauma, especially for students experiencing housing and food insecurity, inadequate internet connections and other family-related stressors.

Crepeau-Hobson said this is the time to focus on providing safe and supportive school climates in the upcoming school year because students benefit from consistency and predictability. Crepeau-Hobson is a member of the National Association of School Psychologists, which opposes retention as an intervention strategy.

Because of the pandemic, more kids likely will be required to repeat the third grade and won’t be performing on grade level, said Marty West, professor of education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. West, the author of the Brookings report on Florida’s retention law, added that retention may not be the right intervention method for kids, though it shouldn’t be taken off the table.

“Some students benefit from being held back, but the first instinct should be to build a structure of support that would allow a student to succeed while remaining with their grade cohort,” West told Stateline.

“And that may not be possible in all cases,” he said, “but I think being behind academically as a result of the disruption of the pandemic is a different phenomenon than being behind academically after having received the instruction and services typically available in grades kindergarten to three.”

Aallyah Wright is a staff writer at Stateline.

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