If you reflect on your own third grade experience, you might recall a favorite teacher or subject, a best friend or a nemesis. But you probably don’t recall third grade as a watershed year. Yet, when it comes to reading competency, researchers say it is. In fact, one study indicates that reading below grade level in third grade is likely to result in four times the chance of dropping out of high school. That’s a rather dramatic conclusion.
With that potential outcome in mind, teachers often resort to retaining students. After all, the thinking goes, if a student can’t read on grade level in third grade, how can he or she possibly be successful in fourth grade? That’s why about 15 percent of students are retained in any grade each year, and anywhere from 30-50 percent are retained somewhere in K-12. However, while grade retention sounds quite plausible, the consequences of retention are a mixture of positive and negative, with a greater negative impact than most educators consider.
Obviously, for example, being held over is a serious blow to students’ self-esteem. Evoking feelings of inadequacy, shame and social discomfort, retention at this point in a student’s education—or worse, in a higher grade—causes a good deal of angst and anxiety that last for years to come. If we’re teaching the whole child, which should always be our goal, how can we in good conscience overlook this significant emotional side effect?
The fact that any benefits are short term is another negative factor. In Florida, for instance, keeping students in third grade caused fourth grade reading scores to skyrocket, yet eighth grade scores stagnated. So what was really gained?
Then there’s the racial component, which is reflected in the fact that students of color in urban schools are far more likely to be retained than white students with the same scores in affluent suburbs. Are we creating yet another means of devising gaps that are labeled as “achievement gaps” but are really opportunity gaps—the opportunities offered by money and other resources.
Likewise, boys have a higher retention rate than girls. This raises the issue of schools being structured in ways contrary to boys’ natural inclinations: their tendency to be restless, to speak a bit louder, to be more rambunctious than is usually permitted in a classroom setting where the expectation is that they will be quiet, still and focused for extended periods of time. While this is a topic worth exploring in itself, it can certainly engender a teacher bias against boys that can lead to their being held back more often than girls simply for acting like boys. Are we really comfortable with the prospect of punishing boys for being boys?
Sure, there is anecdotal evidence that some students benefit from being held back a grade, gaining skills and confidence. However, that’s not the story of the vast majority of students. So it’s time we tried alternatives. With an estimated $10,000 spent for each retained child, multiply that by the 15 percent of students retained each year, and that money might be better spent to obtain the services of reading specialists to help students gain the skills they lack. The growth in self-efficacy alone is worth that investment.
The point is that settling for the status quo of grade retention is the lazy way out. Students deserve the opportunity to develop their reading skills—skills that are transferable to every aspect of their lives. The least educators can do is provide every resource for students to develop those skills without exacting blows to their self-worth.