When 40,000 Kids Struggle to Read, Should We Hold Them All Back?

A new retention law in Ohio could cause thousands of third graders who aren’t reading at grade level to repeat a year.

Would you want your kid to be held back if he or she is not reading at grade level? (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Is it fair to hold third graders back if they can’t read at grade level?

Many states say yes, but are now faced with one little problem. What happens if the number of kids who are behind is much greater than expected?

In Ohio, for example, 40,000 third-grade students—30 percent—are currently not reading at grade level. Starting in the 2013-14 school year, if they can’t read, they don’t go to fourth grade. This new law, which is currently in a trial run, is part of Governor John Kasich’s 2012 education package.

Much to the dismay of teachers and administrators, Kasich wants students to catch up without giving school districts additional funds. Teachers say that such progress is impossible without more money and tutors.

More: New Report Blasts Poor Retention Rates for Irreplaceable Teachers

In addition to Ohio, 13 other states have similar laws. As more states consider adopting the policies, the issue is becoming increasingly controversial.

Educational psychologist David Berliner, the Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University, is critical of retention. He told The Atlantic in February 2012:

It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental. Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn't reading well in third grade that it's a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you're going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you're going to get a better outcome.

In a Harvard study, professor Mark West contradicts Berliner's view. He says:

Critics point to a massive literature indicating that retained students achieve at lower levels, are more likely to drop out of high school, and have worse social-emotional outcomes than superficially similar students who are promoted. Yet the decision to retain a student is typically made based on subtle considerations involving ability, maturity, and parental involvement that researchers are unable to incorporate into their analyses. As a result, the disappointing outcomes of retained students may well reflect the reasons they were held back in the first place rather than the consequences of being retained.

West and other proponents often point to Florida, the first state to enact such a rule in 2002, as a model.

Unlike Ohio, however, Florida invested millions into their retention program. According to The Brookings Institution in Boston, the “Florida policy also includes provisions intended to ensure that retained students acquire the reading skills needed to be promoted the following year.” This includes summer reading programs.

Despite the debate, the trend of holding kids back is likely to continue in 2013. More legislators in states such as South Dakota, Kansas, and Mississippi are planning to explore retention legislation during 2013 sessions.

Do you feel thousands of kids should be held back if they are falling behind? Tell us in comments.

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