Students who are held back in third grade because their reading skills are inadequate and get remedial help see a boost in their test scores and are less likely to be retained later in their education than those who aren't, according to a new policy brief from the Brookings Institution.
The idea of requiring third-grade students to demonstrate grade-level reading skills before moving to fourth grade and beyond is gaining traction in statehouses nationwide. According to the Education Commission on the States, 13 states have passed legislation putting some kind of policy into place this year.
"If you can't read, you might as well forget it," Ohio Gov. John Kasich said after signing his state's bill in June, according to the Plain Dealer. "Kids who make their way through social promotion beyond the third grade, when they get up to the 8th, 9th, 10th grade... They get lapped. The material becomes too difficult."
Harvard professor Martin West, writing on behalf of Brookings, analyzed several large-scale studies from Florida to gauge the impact of a third-grade reading requirement, which has been in place in that state since 2003. According to the research, students who were held back and received remedial reading help were 11 percent less likely to be held back the next year than those who advanced through social promotion. They were also 4 percent less likely to be held back in any of the next three years.
Students who are offered remedial reading help see an immediate boost in their test scores the next year, according to West's research, and continue to outperform their peers who were automatically promoted when tested at the same grade level. West did note, however, that the difference between the two groups narrows as they get older.
More than 13 percent of Florida third-graders were held back but received remedial help the year after the policy took effect; African-American and Hispanic students were disproportionately represented among those held back. West pointed out that, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one-third of all U.S. fourth-grade students failed to show a basic level of reading proficiency.
"The best available evidence indicates that policies that include appropriate interventions for retained students may well be a useful component of a comprehensive strategy," West wrote in his conclusion. "There is nothing in the research literature proving that such a practice would be harmful to the students who are directly affected, and some evidence to suggest that those students may benefit."
The full Brookings brief is below.