How the Bad Old Third Grade Guarantee May Be Reborn to Hurt Children in the Post-COVID Era

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss republished an article about learning loss, an article that raises some very serious concerns about what will happen next fall when we can presume that most children will be back in school.

The article is by a former teacher, now an editor at a website called Edutopia.  Steven Merrill writes: “It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic… But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of time with the moment… If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months.  Over 500,000 Americans have died.  Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year…  Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first—on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence—is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predicable outcomes… (I)f we make school both welcoming and highly engaging… we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year.”

We know that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is requiring states to administer the usual, federally mandated standardized tests for this school year. Cardona says he doesn’t intend for the tests to be used for school accountability, but instead to see which schools and school districts need the most help—a strange justification because the tests were designed for and have always been used for holding schools and teachers and even students accountable. And the punitive policies these tests trigger in schools across the country are well established. What if state legislatures and state departments of education merely use the test scores in this bizarre post-COVID school year to trigger the same old punishments we’ve been watching for years now?

For example, consider the Third Grade Guarantee, which originally came from Jeb Bush’s right-wing, Foundation for Excellence in Education, or as it is now called ExcelinEdCarly Sitrin, for Politico’s Recovery Lab recalls the history: “Republican school choice policymakers in the early 2000s… zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos… If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) creates model far-right legislation—bills that can be simply adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country.  Back in 2012, the Third Grade Guarantee was included in an ALEC model law.  According to Chapter 7, Section 2 (C) of the ALEC model law, “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

There is, however a downside to retaining students, even in the elementary school years. Children who are held back a grade are stigmatized as failures and more likely than other children to drop out of school before high school graduation. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney summarized: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

And David Berliner and Gene Glass report the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 96)

Sitrin profiles the dilemma in this COVID-19 school year of students in Tennessee, where policy makers have decided that, depending on standardized test scores, students whose third-grade reading scores are lagging will be held back in third grade, on top of missing out on all of the last year of schooling with their peers.

Sitrin profiles the family of David Scruggs Jr., who has helped his second grader in Nashville with online schooling all year: “For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home… Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade… Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to COVID-related learning loss… (I)n 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children,, but by state officials.”

Stephen Merrill worries that states’ test-and-punish policies will merely further stigmatize the most vulnerable students who will be “sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues… Can we—should we, in the aftermath of the clarifying events of the last year—find the will to challenge the testing regime, return some agency to both our teachers and our students, bring the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with challenging, engaging work that ushers in a new, better, fairer era in education?”