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?


  • Yasmeen Neuman

    We held back our daughter in 1st grade since we were beginning to enroll her in the ESE program at her traditional public elementary school.  She made tremendous gains as a retained 1st grader the following year.  She was pulled out every day for an hour for intensive reading instruction.  SHe went on to 2nd grade and that year, the school and county decided to cluster children who had IEP’s in one classroom and bring the resource teacher in to help all of them.  With no pull-outs , her SAT scores dropped her 80th-90th percentiles the 1st grade retainee yr to 40-50th percentiles her 2nd grade year.  I also found out she was transcribing on all written assignments half way through the year.  We moved her to a Charter School this year, she is only 1 of 3 students at the school with an IEP.  WE have also had her privately tested and found she had an Expressive Language disorder and she is receiving therapy from a speech therapist twice a week, she is doing well in mathematics but still scoring relatively low on the FAIR tests.  I am told she will most likely not be retained if she doesn’t pass the FCAT since she has already been retained.  If we hadn’t retained her in 1st grade, I would support doing it in 3rd grade.  Most children who don’t pass the FCAT have extenuating struggles not related to the classroom they are taught in.  As a former high school teacher I cannot see placing too much emphasis on linking FCAT scores to how much a teacher gets paid.  
    My daughter is open about her learning disability and wants to let others know that it is ok to repeat a grade.  SHe still struggles with her school work but not as much as she used to.  She understands that lawmakers want to connect FCAT scores to teachers performance and she simply said to me,” Mom, if they do this, who will want to teach me then?  I don’t do well on those tests.  Maybe we should just find out how much money the teacher will lose because of teaching me and just pay her the money ourselves.”  If a 3rd grader(who has repeated a grade) gets it, why doesn’t everybody else???
    Parent of 4 wonderful little girls

    • toy

      Yes, I understand the schools sometimes do put to much on kids not knowing they have a problem with learing, I have a child that is in IEP, and then one of my kids they want to put back because of math he is in the first grade, but they did not say anything about putting him in IEP until the end of the school year, we asked the question why didn’t you teacher think about that at the beginning of the year, the answer was they did not think that he needed it. Really as parents we have to make sure that our kids are getting treated with respect, all of my kids have 37 kids in there class room, I think that is a big problem also.

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