I am grateful to Ohio State Representative Gayle Manning for her dogged effort to eliminate third-grade retention that is the feature of the Third-Grade Guarantee, a plan hatched by Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd, a “think-tank” that has been pushing punitive school reform for years. Despite that her effort failed last year to eliminate mandated retention for Ohio’s students in third-grade if they can’t pass the standardized reading test, Rep. Manning hasn’t given up. She has sponsored House Bill 117 in the current legislative session to eliminate third-grade retention.
The Third-Grade Guarantee is the most misguided example of terrible, test-based school accountability. As with No Child Left Behind and the whole school accountability movement, the purpose is to force schools and school teachers to work harder. But in this case, the victims are the children who arrive at school with different levels of preparation for reading and at different places along the developmental range of normal reading readiness.
In Ohio these days, the loudest voices are the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Andy Brenner, who brags about his recent Master of Arts in Teaching from Liberty University, but who has never taught young children. For the Plain Dealer on Monday, Laura Hancock quoted Brenner: “Part of this discussion with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is can we put these kids on reading improvement plans where the science is behind it that these kids will get on a path to be able to learn to read by fourth grade? That is still the objective.”
We also hear from the Fordham Institute and Ohio Excels—a group representing the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the business community. Both groups are strong critics of teachers and the public schools. Hancock quotes Fordham’s Aaron Churchill: “If you can’t read at the end of grade three, your prospects are quite dim… The dropout rates are higher if you’re having difficulty reading at this point. The material gets harder when you get into fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade, you’re going to get left behind if you don’t have those foundational reading skills.”
Actually Churchill has it backwards about the dropout rate. It turns out that promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee ignore research showing that when students are held back in any grade—they are more likely later to drop out before they graduate from high school. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney reported: “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)
Why does holding children back make them more likely to drop out later? In their book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner, an emeritus professor of education and former president of the American Educational Research Association and Gene V. Glass, a professor of education and an expert in education policy, explain 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.” Berliner and Glass continue: “Researchers have estimated that students who have repeated a grade once are 20-30% more likely to drop out of school than students of equal ability who were promoted along with their age mates. There is almost a 100% chance that students retained twice will drop out before completing high school.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 96-97)
In a recent report examining the impact of Third-Grade Guarantee legislation across the states, Furman University’s Paul Thomas explains that short term gains in reading scores after students are held back are likely to fade out in subsequent years as students move into the upper elementary and middle school years. However, Thomas quotes the National Council of Teachers of English on how the lingering emotional scars from “flunking a grade” linger: “Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:
- “retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
- “basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
- “retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.”
A year ago as the Ohio Legislature considered a bill similar to HB 117, the Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board pressed the legislature to end mandatory third-grade retention based on a single test score: “Unfortunately, the policy of holding struggling readers back in third grade shows that an aggressive tactic can create unintended consequences… Some 39,000 children have failed the statewide reading test since 2014, with most being forced to repeat third grade…. Politicians 10 years ago clearly overstepped in setting up this requirement. They apparently didn’t listen closely to educators who know that children feel stigmatized by being held back, and as Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro told a reporter, can come to hate reading.”
Hancock describes Senate Education Chair, Andy Brenner on the likely future for HB 117: “Brenner, the Ohio senator overseeing the K-12 education committee, predicts the Senate will put back into the budget bill the Third Grade Reading Guarantee retention provision.”
Most educators accept that sometimes a child should be held back. But most agree that this is a complex decision that needs to be considered carefully by the child’s teacher and parents and other school staff.
Perhaps Ohio politicians’ adherence to this dangerous policy is yet another example of their distrust of teachers. Some of our legislators would prefer an automatic policy as safer and more impersonal. Maybe teachers are too soft on the children. In fact, we ought to hope and assume that a child’s teacher cares about the child’s welfare, has a complex understanding of the child’s reading and other academic challenges and strengths, and is actively trying to help the child. What an utterly radical idea!