SC Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, has introduced an education bill modeled on a third-grade retention policy widely promoted by Jeb Bush as one aspect of the larger so-called Florida formula. Superintendent Mick Zais has endorsed the bill as well as suggested implementing similar policies at seventh grade.
SC political leadership must not follow Florida’s lead in reading or grade retention policy for several reasons, including the following: the Florida formula has been thoroughly discredited as a basis for policy, grade retention has no support in the research that shows retention produces mixed positive outcomes along with many negative consequences for children and tax payers, and initiatives such as Just Read, Florida ignore and replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as SC.
First, an essential problem with determining whether or not third graders pass or are retained based on high-stakes test scores is the powerful correlation between test scores and out-of-school factors. Increasing the stakes associated with test scores is guaranteed to impact disproportionately and negatively the most high-needs populations currently struggling in SC schools—high-poverty students, minority students, English language learners, and special needs students.
High-stakes test scores in reading are weak evidence of any child’s literacy, and measures such as “on grade level” are equally flawed. Instead of creating a punitive policy, SC needs to move beyond test-based educational practices, especially with our youngest and highest needs students.
Second, SC political leadership and the public must acknowledge that the “Florida Miracle”—like the “Texas Miracle,” the “Harlem Miracle,” and the “Chicago Miracle”—has been discredited as incomplete data, misrepresented accomplishments, or outright failures masked by political advocacy.
Matthew Di Carlo, a fellow at the Shanker Institute, acknowledges some basic gains in reading made by Florida students, but offers a strong caution:
“That said, the available evidence on these policies, at least those for which some solid evidence exists, might be summarized as mixed but leaning toward modestly positive, with important (albeit common) caveats. A few of the reforms may have generated moderate but meaningful increases in test-based performance (with all the limitations that this implies) among the students and schools they affected. In a couple of other cases, there seems to have been little discernible impact on testing outcomes (and/or there is not yet sufficient basis to draw even highly tentative conclusions). It’s a good bet – or at least wishful thinking – that most of the evidence is still to come….Whether we like it or not, real improvements at aggregate levels are almost always slow and incremental. There are no ‘miracles,’ in Florida or anywhere else. The sooner we realize that, and start choosing and judging policies based on attainable expectations that accept the reality of the long haul, the better.”
Third, while the Florida formula is not a credible basis for any state to create new policy, the most disturbing element of the proposal in SC is that all evidence on grade retention reveals only negative consequences for children (academic and emotional) and taxpayers, the public.
While public sentiment leans toward grade retention based on a popular rejection of social promotion, decades of research show that retention and social promotion are academically ineffective while retention also leads to powerful negative consequences for students. Grade retention has only one clear outcome: increasing the likelihood of a student becoming a drop-out.
In a high-poverty state such as SC, test-based grade retention policies based on reading proficiency will guarantee an increase in the negative outcomes currently being experienced by high-poverty minority students. Following the Florida formula will, then, perpetuate and increase the exact problems education reform should be alleviating.
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center, has detailed that retention fails students and ultimately taxpayers because retention increases drop-out rates:
“1. She may drop out, meaning she will pay about $60,000 less in taxes over her lifetime, be more likely to commit crimes, and be more likely to depend on government assistance; or
“2. She may complete high school, at a cost of an extra year of school – about $10,000. If retention had a substantial payoff, paying for an extra year of school would be worthwhile (although it nationally adds up to billions of dollars each year). But there’s no benefit. With grade retention, we are paying more and getting a worse outcome.”
Instead of following the punitive and ineffective Florida formula, SC reading reform should include low-cost but evidence-based policy changes that include increasing students’ access to books in their homes and schools, supporting students reading by choice for extended periods during the school day, and creating holistic and authentic models for assessing reading.