Early literacy policies being enacted in states across our country are so much more than “retention policies,” as some believe. Instead, they are focused on preventative measures to identify K-3 students who need additional help in reading as early as possible, provide effective, scientifically based reading instruction and intervention targeted at individual student needs, and help ensure each child has achieved grade-level reading by the end of third grade.
It’s true that the policies do end social promotion of third graders, but retention is used only as a last resort. This step is intended only for third-grade students who are reading severely below grade level and truly need an entire year of intensified intervention, delivered by a highly effective teacher, to catch up. These critical supports extend beyond classroom instruction to include teacher training on the science of reading, parental involvement and read-at-home plans, extended learning opportunities such as summer camps, individualized student reading plans, and more specialized, targeted support.
As demonstrated by scores on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 37 percent of fourth graders in our country are proficient readers. That is, close to two-thirds of our 4th grade children are reading below grade level. And reading scores have remained fairly flat across many states. More than a dozen states across the nation, however, have taken steps to intervene and, through bold but sometimes politically controversial policy, turn these dismal academic results around. States like Florida and Mississippi, for instance, have been implementing comprehensive early literacy policies for years and are, as a result, seeing rising student achievement.
Consider that research on Florida’s early literacy policy found that students who just missed the mark for promotion and were retained in third grade outperform those who barely passed and were promoted. Their stronger performance continued all the way through 9th grade, when compared to their grade–level peers. The research also showed that retained students took fewer remediation courses and have higher GPAs than the same promoted students mentioned above take.
A more recent study conducted on Florida’s early literacy policy analyzed graduation rates of all retained students compared to those promoted. It found that, on average, Florida’s early literacy policy led to significant gains in eighth–grade math and reading test scores. It also increased the probability of retained students graduating from high school by three percentage points. The intensive interventions in K-3 led to significant increases in student reading and math performance in third grade, prior to the retention decision, which likely led to fewer retentions in third grade.
Since the start of policy implementation in Florida, reading scores for Florida students have soared. According to the 2017 NAEP, Florida ranked fifth in the nation in fourth-grade reading performance overall and outperformed the national average in every subgroup.
Another national leader in early reading results is Mississippi, thanks in part to a comprehensive early literacy policy similar to Florida’s. After Mississippi enacted its Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013, the state’s fourth-grade NAEP reading scores have substantially improved. In fact, in 2017 Mississippi was second in the nation in fourth-grade learning gains in reading.
The policy is also popular with educators. A study of Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act included input from the Mississippi Department of Education and teachers around the state. It found that teachers and literacy leaders overwhelmingly agreed the early literacy program has provided the support necessary for improving reading instruction, which has led to more students prepared to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
The ultimate failure is to allow a child to graduate into fourth grade without the most critical tool to succeed. Focusing solely on third-grade reading retention disregards the proven impact of comprehensive literacy policies. States looking to advance early literacy and prepare students for lifelong success would do well to follow the lead of Florida and Mississippi.
About the author
Cari Miller serves as Policy Director of Early Literacy for ExcelinEd. She works hand in hand with states pursuing a comprehensive approach to K-3 reading policy, and she supports state departments with effective policy implementation. Cari is a former elementary teacher and reading coach. She also served as the Deputy Director of Just Read, Florida!, Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative. At Just Read, Florida!, she served in other capacities, including: Elementary Reading Specialist, Director of Reading First and Director of Elementary Reading. Her sole mission is to improve student reading achievement across the nation.