No one would expect that babies should leap to their feet and run before they have even learned to walk. So why do schools promote third-graders who lack basic reading skills to fourth grade in the hopes that they will somehow join the academic gallop without having first developed the academic equivalent of walking?
Unfortunately, that is exactly what most schools in Indiana and across the country do. They promote students to the next grade regardless of how well prepared they are to learn increasingly challenging material.
But there is another way. In Florida, students have to demonstrate basic skills in reading by the end of third grade to be automatically promoted to fourth grade. If students can’t demonstrate basic reading skills on the state test, they typically repeat the third grade to ensure that they have acquired those skills before being promoted.
Mastering basic reading skills before fourth grade is critically important. Until third grade, students are mostly learning how to read. After third grade, students are mostly reading to learn. If students can’t read after third grade, they lack the basic tools to benefit from being in school and tend to fall further and further behind.
The decision to retain students in third grade in Florida is not based on a single test. Students are given the opportunity to succeed on an alternative test. If they can’t do that, the teacher can assemble a portfolio of work that demonstrates the student can read sufficiently well. And if the student has a disability, is newly learning English, or has been held back before, the student is exempted from retention.
When Florida first changed its promotion policy in 2002, 41 percent of the students who were unable to pass the state’s initial test demonstrated skills in an alternative way or received an exemption. The rest repeated third grade.
It may seem like being retained was failure for these students, but it was actually helping to set them up for success down the road. In a published evaluation of the program I conducted with Marcus Winters, we found that retained students learned at a significantly faster rate over the next two years than students just like them who were promoted to fourth grade. Making sure students have mastered walking helps them run in later years.
Retaining students also forces schools to focus more attention on ensuring that students have basic reading skills by the end of third grade so that they don’t have to be retained. Those efforts have succeeded in Florida, where significantly fewer students are now unable to pass the state reading test and need to be retained.
Some oppose test-based promotion because they fear that holding students back damages their self-esteem, discourages them, and ultimately causes them to drop out. But this argument has things exactly backwards: promoting students who lack basic reading skills sets them up for failure as they fall further behind academically.
Likewise, the greatest source of lasting self-esteem is genuine academic success, not the artificial success of being pushed into the next grade, regardless of how much one has learned. The best way to address self-esteem and low graduation rates in the long term is to improve student reading skills before fourth grade so that they are back on track to make progress in school.
Some wonder whether we can afford to retain students. This argument is strange because it suggests that the more than $10,000 spent per pupil in Indiana so far was just for baby sitting. Actually getting kids to read at a basic level will cost extra. The real question is not whether we can afford a retention policy but whether we can afford not to ensure basic reading skills before fourth grade.
This piece originally appeared in The Indianapolis Star