A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

P.L. Thomas, Education, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Prepared for the Ohio Education Association in response to Ohio’s “Third Grade Reading Guarantee”

August 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]

State Reading Policy: An Overview

In the 2000s, the National Reading Panel (NPR) report and the reports from its subgroups[1] were adopted into George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, mandating scientifically based instruction[2] and establishing a framework for how reading should be taught in the U.S.—what is often identified as the Five Pillars of Reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.[3]

However, only two decades later, the U.S. is facing another reading “crisis” along with an increase in state-level reading legislation and policy being revised or introduced.[4] The current movement is often the result of advocacy by parents concerned about dyslexia (Decoding Dyslexia[5]) and media coverage of the “science of reading.”[6] That advocacy and media messaging have been incredibly effective in terms of driving legislation and policy; however, many literacy scholars and researchers have noted the media-based movement exaggerates and oversimplifies claims about reading, science, and research; depends on anecdotes and misleading think-tank claims about successful implementation of reading research; and creates a hostile social media climate around reading debates.[7]

A summer 2022 analysis by Education Week shows that at least 30 states have passed revised or new reading legislation in the past decade and 2/3rd of those states includes grade retention policies.[8] Over that decade, state-level reading policies and practices include the following:

  • Legislation focusing on reading proficiency by 3rd grade, often including grade retention policies linked to high-stakes testing.[9]
  • Commercial reading programs being banned at the state level and re-evaluated at the district and school levels.
  • Reading policy and practices targeting dyslexia, including universal screening and mandates for systematic phonics instruction (often Orton-Gillingham[10]).
  • Policies have mandated systematic phonics instruction for all students.
  • A renewed emphasis on phonics in teacher professional development (such as requiring training in LETRS) and teacher education.[11]

Two aspects of this reading “crisis” and subsequent legislation and policy are important for all policy makers in states across the U.S.: (1) Continuing to follow the same in-school only policy approaches to education and reading[12] are destined to fail again,[13] and (2) several elements of the “science of reading” movement are contradictory and even harmful for students.[14]

Below, this examination focuses on grade retention as reading policy, highlighting the complicated impact of grade retention on reading achievement (specifically standardized test scores) as well as the disproportionate negative impact of retention on vulnerable populations of students (racial minorities, multilingual learners, students identified as at-risk, high poverty, below reading proficiency, etc.)

Grade Retention as Reading Policy

As noted earlier, grade retention as reading policy is relatively common and expanding across the U.S.:

The “science of reading” movement has increased state policies mandating grade retention based on high stakes testing, copycat versions of the post-NCLB “Florida model,” despite evidence suggesting that retention remains harmful.[15] Media have presented increased standardized test scores in Mississippi (see an examination of Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores below) as proof of the effectiveness of reading science reforms,[16] although it is likely, as Todd Collins for Thomas B. Fordham Institute explains, that Mississippi’s high retention rate[17] and not classroom instruction reform is the primary source of the score increases. Evidence since the mid-2000s confirms grade retention can increase test scores short-term, but the long-term impact is negative, since grade retention remains associated with students dropping out of high school.[18]

Because of short-term reading score increases, grade retention policy remains politically compelling for policy makers because high-profile research is covered in the media and used by advocates to impact policy change based on standardized reading scores.[19] Yet, policy makers must be cautious because research has not yet clarified if those increases are caused by retention or other policies impacting retained students: “This means the researchers do not know if these positive outcomes for those below the cut-score were due to the greater likelihood of retention or to the assurance of additional services”; reviews of short-term gains continue to show that they fade over time and that negative consequences of grade retention (like eventually dropping out of school) remain.[20]

Ultimately, grade retention increasing 3rd and 4th grade standardized test scores is likely a statistical mirage (notably since evidence shows those gain disappear by middle school). That mirage is likely the result of how grade retention changes the population of students being tested by

(1) removing students likely to score low from the testing pool (students retained in 3rd grade would not be in their peer testing pool in 4th grade) and

(2) creating a population of students to be tested when at least one year biologically older than the pool being testing (once those retained in 3rd grade are promoted to 4th grade).

Since grade retention as reading policy is unlikely to produce valid increases in reading proficiency among students and since grade retention remains strongly associated with negative outcomes for students (dropping out of high school, for example), policy makers are strongly encouraged to eliminate grade retention mandates based on standardized test scores in grade 3 as identified by a Resolution from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.[21]

What about Mississippi?

While a high-profile article in the New York Times suggested a Mississippi reading “miracle” based on 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores,[22] that conclusion was greatly misleading and incomplete. However, a closer and more nuanced look at Mississippi provides a valuable understanding for current policy makers concerned about reading legislation and policy.

First, as noted above by Collins, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores are significantly impacted by grade retention, and policy makers must acknowledge that grade retention disproportionately impacts vulnerable student populations (see NCTE Resolution), for example:

[SOURCE: Civil Rights Data Collection, USDOE]

Table 1 shows that, specifically for example, Black students are disproportionately impacted by grade retention. Numbers of students retained and that disproportion are strong indicators of the harm and punitive impact of grade retention.

Further, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP reading scores for grade 4 were outliers compared to the rest of the U.S, that outlier status suggests that Mississippi may not be a valid source of scaling up reform for other states. Nonetheless, Mississippi’s longitudinal data, since 1998,[23] suggests improved test data over time and well before many of the recent policies:

Although Mississippi’s policies, standards, and assessments have varied since 1998, the state has shown gradual but persistent improvement in grade 4 reading scores on NAEP. The 2019 large increase used by the “science of reading” movement to claim “miracle,” however, is not unique; see the significant increase from 2002 to 2009, occurring well before any use of the term “science of reading.”

Important to understand is that improvement in education is likely complicated to cause and difficult to link to any single practice; therefore, policy makers must be diligent about “first, do no harm” by avoiding policies that may have politically expedient outcomes at the expense of the best interest of students and teachers. The relative increase and success by Mississippi in 2019 when compared to the rest of the U.S. is strongly tempered by a fuller analysis also:

[Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here]

Many policy makers have been seeking ways to close these gaps for decades, and Mississippi shows us that even when there is gradual and persistent improvement, problems of inequity remain.[24] Therefore, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP data are not a “miracle,” but they are an important red flag about the insufficiency of school-only policy and of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.[25]

Grade retention distorts test data, disproportionately impacts and punishes vulnerable populations of students, and creates a distraction from reading reform’s ultimate goal of increased student reading proficiency.

Third-Grade Proficiency and the “Word Gap”

Along with grade retention, policy makers must reconsider two other aspects of reading that often influences policy and practice—third grade reading proficiency and the “word gap.”

Policy makers and educators tend to focus on third grade reading proficiency because it (like grade retention) is correlated with negative outcomes for students, such as dropping out and prison.[26] However, while these concerns are valid, grade-level reading must be recognized as a measurement primarily created and used by the textbook industry; identifying “third grade reading level” is not as accurate or useful as many people think. More importantly, research suggests a correlation between third grade proficiency and negative outcomes, which does not warrant creating high-stakes policy around a single grade or a single measurement.[27]

Based on a popularize and often cited study by Hart and Risley from 1995,[28] it has become “common knowledge” to associate literacy with social class, specifically that high-poverty students have low literacy (fewer words) and that middle-class and affluent students have high literacy (more words). A number of scholars, however, have discredited the study as well as called into question associating literacy with simple word counts.[29] Curt Dudley-Marling notes that the Hart and Risley study is marred by poor methodology (should not be used to generalize about all students) and is grounded in class and race stereotypes; in short, the “word gap” is little more than a misguided assumption about students, reading, and literacy.[30]

Alternative Policy: A Recommendation

States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.

While a broad range of new approaches are needed for state policy and classroom practice,[31] immediately states must repeal retention policy linked to high stakes testing in 3rd grade. Grade retention creates a test-score increase that is a mirage, harms students in the long run, and distracts from more effective and supportive reading policy.

Instead of punitive policies such as grade retention, state policy makers should consider the following:

  • Eliminate high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd – 5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input, etc.).
  • Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


Notes

[1] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[2] Wilde, J. (2004, January). Definitions for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Scientifically-based research. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://ncela.ed.gov/files/rcd/BE021264/Definitions_of_the_NCLB_Act.pdf

[3] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[4] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[5] See https://www.decodingdyslexia.net/

[6] Hanford, E. (2018, September 10). Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? APM Reports. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[7] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://newpol.org/issue_post/cryonics-phonics-inequalitys-little-helper/ 

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145—S155. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log]. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://radicalscholarship.com/2019/12/06/mississippi-miracle-or-mirage-2019-naep-reading-scores-prompt-questions-not-answers/

[8] Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[9] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

[10] International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

See https://www.orton-gillingham.com/

[11] Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255—S266. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

[12] Duran, L., & Hikida, M. (2022, May 2). Making sense of reading’s forever war. Kappan, 103(8), 14 – 19. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://kappanonline.org/readings-forever-wars-duran-hikida/

[13] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2241

[14] Thomas, P.L. (2022). How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students:

A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (2nd ed.). Information Age Publishing.

National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

[15] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-getting-farther-ahead-staying-behind-a-second-year-evaluation-floridas-policy-end-s

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. school. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n18.2014

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

[16] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[17] Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

[18] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-getting-farther-ahead-staying-behind-a-second-year-evaluation-floridas-policy-end-s

Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. school. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n18.2014

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., & Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(7), 974–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000243

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

Access grade retention data from the USDOE/Office of Civil Rights here https://ocrdata.ed.gov/estimations/2017-2018

[19] Perrault, P., & Winters, M.A. (2020, July 28). Test-based promotion and student performance in Florida and Arizona. Manhattan Institute. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://www.manhattan-institute.org/student-retention-policies-impact-student-success

[20] Robinson-Cimpian, J.P. (2015, December). Review of The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida. National Education Policy Center. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-NBER-retention

[21] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[22] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[23] Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading?grade=4

[24] Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

[25] National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

[26] Hernandez, D.J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school Ggraduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://assets.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-DoubleJeopardy-2012-Full.pdf

[27] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[28] Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Brookes.

[29] See an overview of that research here: https://radicalscholarship.com/2015/02/17/the-word-gap-a-reader/

[30] Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1), Article 5. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://cedar.wwu.edu/jec/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.