Policies that require students to demonstrate a minimal level of reading ability on a standardized test in order to be promoted into particular grades have expanded to 16 states and several urban school districts. The large majority of these test-based promotion policies are restricted to the third grade, under the argument that it is the grade in which students stop learning to read and start reading to learn.
Test-based promotion is an especially controversial policy because there is widespread disagreement about whether grade retention helps or harms low-performing students. It’s understandable, then, that debates about such policies focus almost exclusively on the various predictions of the effect on students they retain. The evidence on the effect of retention under test-based promotion policies is decidedly mixed.
Often lost in these discussions is the potential that linking grade promotion to an objective measure of academic performance could have much broader effects that go beyond just those students who are actually retained. On one hand, the desire to avoid retention in the looming “gateway” grade targeted by the policy could incentivize both students and schools to make academic improvements within that grade or an earlier grade. On the other hand, the policy could backfire if parents and students buckle under the increased pressure imposed by the threat of retention.
There is more than theoretical reason to suspect that the threat of retention has impacts on students and educators. Researchers from WestEd interviewed a variety of people within five Arizona school districts during the first year of the state’s third grade test-based promotion policy. Teachers and administrators reported that they allocated additional financial and curricular resources to early-grade instruction in response to the policy. Both parents and students who were interviewed reported that they felt pressure from the policy to improve performance.
In a new report released by the Manhattan Institute, my co-author Paul Perrault and I use data from both Florida and Arizona to measure the effect of adopting a test-based promotion policy for third grade students. We find evidence of substantial improvement in third grade performance within each state during the first year that its students were required to reach a minimal reading score in order to be promoted. The gains in third grade were significantly larger than those made by students in the fourth and fifth grade within the same school who faced no threat of retention under the policy. That the impact of the policy in the two states was remarkably similar despite Florida having adopted it nearly a decade prior to Arizona provides additional confidence that the effect is real, not a statistical anomaly.
Our findings have important implications for understanding the impact of test-based promotion policies on overall student outcomes. Indeed, the number of students with a meaningful chance of scoring below the threshold and thus being retained by such policies in the future far exceeds the number of students the policies actually retain each year. Thus, even a small policy-driven effect multiplied across the many students trying to avoid future retention might have a larger overall effect on student performance than a positive effect of retention that is confined to the small number of students retained under the policy.
That test-based promotion would have such an expansive effect is not so surprising if we look beyond the flashpoint issue of retention and recognize that test-based promotion falls within a series of standards-based educational reforms that incentivize better student outcomes by linking a consequence to failure to meet a particular level of performance. Our estimates are actually quite consistent with previous research in this area.
Of course, the impact of retention will appropriately remain a first-order concern when policymakers consider test-based promotion policies. But far-reaching policies such as test-based promotion often produce a broad set of effects that should not be ignored. Indeed, in the case of test-based promotion policies, taking such a narrow view leads one to severely understate its effects.
This piece originally appeared at RealClearEducation
Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, associate professor at Boston University, and coauthor of the recent report, Test-Based Promotion and Student Performance in Florida and Arizona.
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