Putting Education Reform To The Test

Should Students Repeat Third-Grade if They Can’t Read Well?

Ken Wilcox / flickr

Florida has been holding back third graders who fail the state reading exam since 2003. Now Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee are trying to mirror Florida’s policy, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But is Florida’s policy a good one?

Jaryn Emhof, with the Foundation for Florida’s Future said third grade is the most important year for new readers.

“Because up to third grade you’re learning to read, but from fourth grade on you’re reading to learn.” So Emhof said students can continue to fall behind in all the other subjects if they are not good readers.

Since the law passed under Gov. Jeb Bush,  fourth grade reading scores in Florida went from ranking second from the bottom nationally in 1999 to among the top ten today. But eight grade reading scores are still low.

“That’s an area Florida is still working on,” Emhof said. “And what our eight grade reading scores tell us is that we can’t stop making reading proficiency a priority at third grade… we need to be making reading a focus throughout [a student’s career].”

Before the law held back poor readers, only 2% of third grade students who scored in the lowest level on the state’s standardized exam – the FCAT – were held back, according to Emhof. Last year 16% of third graders scored in the lowest level on the FCAT reading test but only 5.9% of them were actually held back, which comes out to 13,340 students.

Not all poor third grade readers are held back because students get another chance to take the test, “because maybe you had a bad test day,” Emhof said,” or maybe you’re not a good test taker or its your first year as an English Language learner, so Florida gives students another chance.”

Third Graders Held Back Since 2003:
2003: 27,713
2004: 23,348
2005: 20,121
2006: 14,151
2007: 16,676
2008: 13,666
2009: 13,340
2010: 12,223

Note: Not all of these students have been held back because of poor reading scores alone.

The Florida Department of Education website says, “Students who are retained must be given intensive instruction in reading to help them catch up” before they can move on to fourth grade.

The Wall Street Journal spoke to a Florida teacher about what its like to hold back students.

Kyla Burd, a third-grade teacher at Carrollwood Elementary in Tampa, Fla., said students who struggle to read at third grade are “painfully aware” they are behind, and she said holding them back can be beneficial if they receive targeted attention.

“Holding back a child is not an easy decision,” said Ms. Burd, who has held back students and has two retained kids in her current classroom. “But the alternative is you just move them ahead, hope for the best and then watch them struggle in fourth grade.”

The evidence on whether making kids repeat grades helps them or hurts them has been mixed. Some studies say retention increases the likelihood that kids will drop out later in their school career.

What do you think? Is Florida’s policy working?


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