I remember vividly during one of Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses watching the president state that he was seeking education policy that would ensure that all third graders would be able to read; he did the emphatic fist with thumb slightly extended to prove he was serious.
I also remember thinking—and possibly saying aloud to the TV—”No, they won’t.”
It is a silly political thing to pretend that the teaching of reading is somehow determined by political policy. It is a ridiculous thing to think that naming that political policy something clever matters as well.
But it also a silly and ridiculous thing that seemingly will never end.
In South Carolina, the state senate is considering Read to Succeed, a reading policy built in part on the Florida formula (Just Read, Florida!) that has a great deal of political support but has been unmasked as yet another misleading education “miracle” that wasn’t.
The most flawed aspect of Read to Succeed is that it mimics Florida’s third-grade retention policy that will retain third graders based on standardized test scores.
The Education Oversight Committee (EOC) has examined the Read to Succeed act, and offers an At a Glance on retention and lessons learned from Florida.
While the At a Glance appears research-based and comprehensive, the Read to Succeed act and the EOC support actually represent what Matthew DiCarlo has identified as a central problem with policy built on a misuse of data:
The recent release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the companion Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) was predictably exploited by advocates to argue for their policy preferences. This is a blatant misuse of the data for many reasons that I have discussed here many times before, and I will not repeat them….
But they are not policy evidence. Period….
But, as I’ve said before, there’s a very large group of us out here who are willing to applaud any high-level leader who refuses to misuse evidence, whether or not we happen to agree with their substantive policy positions. I’m sure there are leaders like that out there, and I wish they were more visible.
In the exact same way as DiCarlo details above about misusing NAEP data for political gain, the EOC is failing in its support of Read to Succeed directly and third-grade retention inclusive.
The EOC’s At a Glance cites only four sources, one of which, Greene and Winters, has been reviewed, concluding:
The report reviewed here concludes that Florida’s recently instituted policy of test-based retention has helped academically struggling elementary school students improve their reading. According to the review, the report overstates the effect of retention on student achievement.
Further, the At a Glance fails to identify a strong body of research that refutes the claims made about the Florida formula and a four-decades body of research that rejects grade retention (See Sources below).
Reading problems are not primarily in our schools. Reading and all literacy problems are overwhelmingly reflections of larger social problems related to inequity and poverty.
Reading and literacy solutions, then, are not to be found in legislation and clever program names—especially when those policies are built on partial and politically manipulated evidence, and especially when those name serve to mislead.
SC is considering using partial evidence a reading policy better named Retain to Impede.
But Xavier wanted a different life; he wanted to be a doctor. He wanted to write about his experiences. What should he read?
I compiled a list of my favorite books, making sure to include teen favorites, books about the medical profession and topics that might speak to a kid growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood. When I gave him the list, he contemplated it with his usual care, made a small check mark next to the books that looked interesting, and looked up. “Where can I get them?” he asked.
And that’s where our story stalls out. Because that’s when I realized that Xavier was living in a book desert.
Review of Closing the Racial Achievement Gap, Madhabi Chatterji
Water into Wine?, Julian Vasquez Heilig
Lurking in the Bushes, Julian Vasquez Heilig
Parsing the Florida “Miracle,” Diane Ravitch
The Test-Based Evidence on the “Florida Formula,” Matthew Di Carlo
Review of Getting Farther Ahead by Staying Behind, Derek C. Briggs
Test-based accountability has become the new norm in public education over the last decade. In many states and school districts nation-wide, student performance in standardized tests plays an important role in high-stakes decisions such as grade retention. This study examines the effects of grade retention on student misbehavior in Florida, which requires students with reading skills below grade level to be retained in the 3rd grade. The regression discontinuity estimates suggest that grade retention increases the likelihood of disciplinary incidents and suspensions in the years that follow. The findings also suggest that these adverse effects are concentrated among economically disadvantaged students
Retaining Students in Grade A Literature Review of the Effects of Retention on Students’ Academic and Nonacademic Outcomes, Nailing Xia, Sheila Nataraj Kirby (2009)
Our review of these 91 studies indicates that grade retention is associated with gender, race, SES, age for grade, student mobility, family and parental characteristics, prior academic achievement, prior behavioral and socioemotional development, and student health. Converging evidence suggests that grade retention alone is not an effective intervention strategy for improving academic and longer-term life outcomes. In general, retention does not appear to benefit students academically. Although some studies have found academic improvement in the immediate years after retention, these gains are usually short-lived and tend to fade over time. Past research has consistently shown that retained students are at significantly increased risk of dropping out of school. Although only a few studies have examined the effects of retention on postsecondary outcomes, the available evidence suggests negative effects on enrollment in postsecondary education and on employment outcomes in adulthood. Overall, the literature indicates mixed findings on attitudinal, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomes among the retained students….Our review found fruitful avenues of research, most notably the impact of supportive interventions (such as early identification of at-risk students, academic instructional services provided in and out of school, and different types of intervention strategies) on proximal and future student outcomes.
The Spillover Effects of Grade-Retained Classmates: Evidence from Urban Elementary Schools, Michael A. Gottfired, American Journal of Education 119 (May 2013)
Retention, Social Promotion, and Academic Redshirting: What Do We Know and Need to Know?, Nancy Frey, Remedial and Special Education, volume 26, number 6, November/December 2005, pages 332-346
The evidence gathered in the last 30 years on the practice of retention suggests that it is academically ineffective and is potentially detrimental to children’s social and emotional health. The seeds of failure may be sown early for students who are retained, as they are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Furthermore, the trajectory of adverse outcomes appears to continue into young adulthood, when wages and postsecondary educational opportunities are depressed.
Dropout Rates after High-Stakes Testing in Elementary School: A Study of the Contradictory Effects of Chicago’s Efforts to End Social Promotion, Elaine M. Allensworth, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 341-364
Alternative to Grade Retention, Jimerson, Pletcher, and Kerr (2005)
Given the accumulating evidence that grade retention is an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention, it is imperative that school administrators advocate for “promotion plus” policies that depend on effective, evidence-based interventions. The issue for secondary school educators is twofold. Not only must educators determine whether retention is appropriate for a given student, they also need to address the negative academic, social, and emotional consequences for students who were retained in earlier grades. Very often the student’s original difficulties persist, or more likely worsen, as their school career progresses.
Winning the Battle and Losing the War, Jimerson, Anderson, and Whipple (Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 39(4), 2002)
Considering the results of this review of research examining the association between grade retention and high school dropout and other reviews of research addressing the efﬁcacy of grade retention (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001a, 2001b; Smith & Shepard, 1987, 1988), we must move beyond the use of grade retention as an intervention strategy and attempt to implement those strategies research has demonstrated to be effective (Jimerson, 2001a). Educational professionals, researchers, parents, and policymakers would be remiss to overlook the implications of research that demonstrate the association between grade retention and school dropout. Furthermore, a new imperative has emerged, where the onus is on programs training future educational professionals to disseminate the results of the recent research presented in this review. It is crucial that we transcend limited solutions and begin to consider student developmental and achievement trajectories in order to reinforce and strengthen pathways that promote social and cognitive competence and lead to academic success.
Some stakeholders in Florida believe that the “hard line in the sand” created by mandatory, test-based retention created a motivational difference in teachers and parents…, since it is thought that many of the same learning supports were being provided to struggling students prior to the policy. This may be the case for test score gains close to the retention year, but given the well-known longer-term negative effect of retention on drop-out rates (e.g., Allensworth, 2005) as well as the assured delayed entry into the workforce, Florida’s evidence falls far short of even suggesting that retention is the only or best way to motivate a real positive difference for struggling students, nor has it contradicted the overwhelming evidence against retention prior and since.
What Doesn’t Work, Smith and Shepard (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1987)
Exploring the Association Between Grade Retention and Dropout, Jimerson, et al. (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 7, pp. 51-62, 2002)
Ultimately, the research is unequivocal in identifying that grade retention does not appear to address the needs of these students at risk of academic failure. Findings from this study should not be misinterpreted as an indication that retention was an effective intervention strategy for the retained students who did not drop out of high school. There is a need for further research comparing the retained students who completed high school with matched comparison groups of similarly low achieving but socially promoted students. This study highlights the association of early socio-emotional and behavioral adjustment and high school dropout among a group of retained students. These findings have direct implications for school psychologists and other educational professionals. In particular, rather than focusing on the unsupported academic intervention of grade retention, it is time to implement prevention and intervention programs that have been empirically demonstrated to meet the needs of these students in facilitating both positive academic success and socio-emotional adjustment.
Grade Retention: A Flawed Education Strategy, Xia and Glennia (part 1)
Decades of research suggest that grade retention does not work as a panacea for poor student performance. The majority of research fails to find compelling evidence that retention improves long-term student achievement. An overwhelmingly large body of studies have consistently demonstrated negative academic effects of retention. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have almost unanimously found that early retention during kindergarten to grade three is harmful, both academically and emotionally.  Many studies find that retention does not necessarily lead to increased work effort among students as predicted.
Cost-Benefit Analysis of Grade Retention, Xia and Glennia (part 2)
Grade Retention: The Gap Between Research and Practice, Xia and Glennia (part 3)
The majority of published studies and decades of research indicate that there is usually little to be gained, and much harm that may be done through retaining students in grade. Yet, many educators continue to use retention as a way to improve student achievement and claim that it produces positive results. The consequence is while a growing body of studies show that retention does not improve academic performance and has a number of negative side effects, more and more states and school districts have adopted retention policy in an effort to enhance the educational accountability.
Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention, Shepard and Smith (Educational Leadership, May 1990)
Grade Retention [a synthesis]
Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century, Shane R. Jimerson (School Psychology Review, 2001, Volume 30, No. 3, pp. 420-437)
A Synthesis of Grade Retention Research: Looking Backward and Moving Forward, Shane R. Jimerson (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 6, pp. 47-59, 2001)
In looking backwards at the retention research and previous reviews and meta-analyses, a consistent theme emerges—grade retention is not an empirically supported intervention. As reflected in the results of the three meta-analyses described above, the confluence of results from research during the past century fails to demonstrate achievement, socioemotional, or behavioral advantages of retaining students. Moreover, the research consistently demonstrates that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of high school.
Evaluating Kindergarten Retention Policy, Hong and Raudenbush (September 2006)
First, Do No Harm, Jay P. Heubert (Educational Leadership, December 2002/January 2003)
 See Krashen, S. (2013, May). Need Children Read ‘Proficiently’ by Grade Three? Language Magazine; Deborah A. Byrnes, and Kaoru Yamamoto, 1985, “Academic Retention of Elementary Pupils: An Inside Look,” Education, 106(2), 208-14; Peg Dawson, 1998, “A Primer on Student Grade Retention: What the Research Says,” NASP Communique, 26(8); Shane R. Jimerson et al., 1997, “A Prospective, Longitudinal Study of the Correlates and Consequences of Early Grade Retention,” Journal of School Psychology, 35(1), 3-25; Panayota Y. Mantzicopoulos, 1997, “Do Certain Groups of Children Profit from Early Retention? A Follow-Up Study of Kindergartners with Attention Problems,” Psychology in the Schools, 34(2), 115-27; Samuel J. Meisels and Fong-Ruey Liaw, 1993, “Failure in Grade: Do Retained Students Catch Up?” Journal of Educational Research, 87(2), 69-77; Judy Temple, Arthur Reynolds and Suh-Ruu Ou, 2001, “Grade Retention and School Dropout: Another Look at the Evidence,” The CEIC Review, 10(5), 5-6 & 21; Charles L. Thompson and Elizabeth K. Cunningham, 2000, “Retention and Social Promotion: Research and Implications for Policy,” Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education Digest, 161, 1-5; Deneen M. Walters and Sherry B. Borgers, 1995, “Student Retention: Is It Effective?” School Counselor, 42(4).