School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

The Beginning of the End of Social Promotion

Stephanie Banchero of the Wall Street Journal reports today that four state legislatures are considering bills that would end the practice of social promotion in the early grades. Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee are all looking at legislation that would require third-graders to pass a reading proficiency test. During grades K-2, parents could choose whether to continue their child to the next grade if he/she does not meet state reading standards. But, in third grade, the state could require a third-grader to repeat his/her grade if the child can’t pass a state reading exam. Banchero reports that Oklahoma, Indiana and Arizona have passed similar bills.

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, only one-third of U.S. schoolchildren scored proficient on national reading exams. The scores have remained stubbornly flat for two decades.

The rationale behind these bills, according to state legislators, is a large body of research that shows significantly negative outcomes associated with children who do not read proficiently by third grade. For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children who can’t read at grade level by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of school.

Moreover, after third grade, there is a leap commonly described as transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” that happens across academic subjects. This means that students in fourth grade are expected to read text and understand its content independently. As such, children who are still struggling readers in fourth grade and beyond end up deficient in other academic areas, particularly those dependent upon reading and learning from a text (e.g., social studies). The result is a student who ends up behind in multiple subjects, and never quite manages to catch up.

While the decision to retain can be difficult, Florida teacher Kyla Burd described it this way:

Holding back a child is not an easy decision.  But the alternative is you just move them ahead, hope for the best and then watch them struggle in fourth grade.

Burd is a third-grade teacher who has held back students, and has two retained students in her current classroom.

Critics of these bills, and of grade retention generally, point to research studies showing mixed results on the effectiveness of repeating a grade, while others worry that repeating a grade will cause low self-esteem in students because of the social stigma associated with it. But proponents of grade retention contend that illiteracy is a far worse social stigma than grade retention.

In Florida, former Governor Jeb Bush and the state legislature ended social promotion in 2002, with a goal to dramatically increase reading proficiency. By 2011, fourth graders in Florida were scoring above the national average reading, although 8th grade scores remain flat.

My take: For retention to really work, the student can’t merely repeat the grade using the same interventions that didn’t work in the first place. That’s why the policy proposed by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R) is a good choice. He wants to commit $10 million to fund specific reading programs focused on getting children to grade level; it would include an additional 90 minutes a day of reading instruction for those students who need it. The bills in New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa make a similar commitment to early literacy.

Beth T. Sigall

February 13, 2012

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One thought on “The Beginning of the End of Social Promotion

  1. Unfortunately your support for 3rd grade retention flies in the face of all peer-reviewed research. More here:

    Where we have them, shouldn’t we be making policy based on data and research, not intuition?

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