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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Repeating a grade can help elementary students succeed

Holding kids back if they're way behind in reading is very controversial, but new research shows that repeating a grade in elementary school can help students improve, conclude Umut Özek and Louis T. Mariano in a new Fordham policy brief. However, waiting till middle school is unlikely to benefit students.

They cite evidence from Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Chicago and New York City.

Academic gains last through middle school, and some studies show retained students feel greater "connectedness" to school compared to similar students who weren't retained.

A "third-grade reading gate" should be part of a broader remediation policy, they write. Extra instruction for at-risk students drastically reduces the number of retained students. Once held back, students need extra instruction. For example, Florida requires schools to develop academic improvement plans for retained students, assign them to high-performing teachers, provide at least 90 minutes of daily reading instruction and offer intensive reading instruction during the summer.

Younger siblings of students who are held back do better in school, notes Kevin Mahnken on The 74. Ozek credits the "threat effect." Requiring students to score at a certain level to move on to fourth grade "provides a clear signal to schools and parents that they need to do something in earlier grades so their students aren’t retained.”

Third grade is too late for many students, writes Kalman R. Hettleman, author of Mislabeled as Disabled: The Educational Abuse of Struggling Readers and How WE Can Fight It. Research shows that students who are behind after third grade rarely catch up to grade level, he writes. "For example, despite highly touted retention policies, the percentages of fourth graders achieving proficiency in reading in 2022 were 31 percent in Mississippi and 39 percent in Florida."

"Foundational reading skills are learned step by step up the grade ladder beginning in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten," he writes. Students who fall behind in kindergarten or first grade are likely to "never catch up — unless they receive before third grade the kind of intensive interventions that third-grade promotion gates are intended to trigger."

“The chance to teach children to read is often lost by the end of first grade, ” reading expert Jarrod Bolte told him.

Hettleman asks: Why wait?

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