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Flunk third graders until they can read

By John Published: March 13, 2012

The Columbus Dispatch has a story mostly focused on Gov. John Kasich's support for Cleveland' s proposed school reforms. The story includes this little nugget:

More immediately, Kasich will push to end ''social promotion'' by requiring schools to provide tutoring or other intervention beginning in kindergarten to students who are behind in reading, and by not allowing students to move on to fourth grade if they fail the state reading test.

State Impact Ohio (NPR collaboration) fleshes that out a little more:
It's a policy that comes into favor periodically, a researcher told the Harvard Education Letter last time around in 1999:

''It follows a seven– or eight-year cycle,'' says retention researcher Lorrie Shepard, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. ''Right now, politicians are seeing retention as the remedy. Once they feel the negative side effects, they'll back off.''

State Impact Florida  notes that Florida has done this for years.

Regarding Florida, a note of caution raised here by the National Education Policy Center last year. The University of Colorado-based  think tank watchdog reviewed former Florida governor Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, which seeks to spread his education reforms state-by-state.

The imposition of promotion and graduation requirements is also claimed to increase academic achievement and graduation rates.

Mr. Bush asserts that the improved fourth-grade NAEP scores were due largely to learning improvements caused by a test-based retention policy in the third grade. As noted earlier, there are several key problems with this assertion. Initially, it should be noted that Mr. Bush pays much less attention to a massive state reading initiative that included coaches, class-size reduction, and early literacy screening. These are all evidence-based programs (that is, programs supported by substantial outside research) with the clear potential to have a positive influence on fourth-grade scores.

Moreover, the Florida third-grade retention policy was shown by Columbia University Professor Madhabi Chatterji to very likely be the cause for much or most of the NAEP gainsbut not in the positive learning sense that Mr. Bush is arguing. Chatterji demonstrates that by screening for low reading scores and then holding these students back a year, the state is able to initially exclude low-scoring students from the fourth-grade NAEP. Then, once these students are promoted to the next grade, the state is able to give the fourth-grade test to a group of students who would otherwise be fifth-graders. That is, these students have another year of learning under their belts. Further, these retained students are disproportionately from minority groups, meaning that the retention policy simultaneously falsely inflates overall scores while creating a misleading impression that the achievement gap is closing.

Update: Reggie Fields at the Plain Dealer has an article today about the new retention policy that answers one question raised in comments to this post: Students with learning disabilities or whose native language is not English will be exempt.

Also, check out this review of the research published in 2009 by the Rand Corporation on the effectiveness of holding students back:

In general, retention does not appear to benefit students academically. In most of the studies included here, we find negative relationships between retention and subsequent academic
achievement. On the other hand, a few studies have found academic improvement in the immediate years after retention. Even so, these gains are often short-lived and tend to fade over time. Findings from the few studies using rigorous methods to adjust for selection bias have been mixed as wellwith some showing short-term gains and others reporting gains that disappeared over time.



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