States considering bills that would make kids repeat third grade for failing reading tests

Lawmakers in at least four US states are considering legislation that would make students repeat third grade if they can't pass state reading exams, reviving debates about whether retaining students boosts achievement or increases their odds of dropping out.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Colorado introduced legislation early this month that would prod schools to hold back children in kindergarten through third grade who don't meet state reading standards. In the early grades, parents could insist the child be promoted, but at third grade, the school district would have the ultimate say.

"The goal is not to retain students, but to get parents, teachers and students all working collaboratively to address the literacy problems when they first show up," said Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat who is a sponsor of the bill.

Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee also are considering bills on the issue.

All the bills, as well as similar ones passed recently in Oklahoma, Arizona and Indiana, aim to address literacy deficiencies that exist nationwide. Only one third of US schoolchildren had proficient scores on the most recent national reading exam, and scores have barely budged in two decades. That comes as children have made steady gains in math.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of school. Third grade is seen as so important for reading because many other subjects begin in earnest the following school year.

Third grade is also the year that federal law mandates all states must begin testing reading and math.

The bills in New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa would assess students' literacy skills in kindergarten through third grade and mandate special instruction for students falling behind. The New Mexico initiative sets aside $17 million to pay for that instruction; the Colorado one sets aside $3 million.

In New Mexico, where the Republican governor has made student retention a part of her education blueprint this year, some Democrats have labeled the legislation the "third grade flunking" bill and have introduced competing legislation that would scrap the retention provision.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad wants to use about $10 million to pay for specific interventions, such as an additional 90 minutes of reading instruction for students retained.

"We are trying to strike a balance between making sure children learn to read and recognize it's hard for a child to be held back," said Linda Fandel, the governor's special assistant for education. "We know it's hard on a child's self-esteem to be held back, but it's even harder on self-esteem to be illiterate."

Chicago made national headlines in the late 1990s by holding back tens of thousands of students who were deficient in math and reading. But a series of studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that, in general, retained students did no better in later years than students who had nearly identical academic achievement but were promoted. Retained students also were more likely to have dropped out.

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