Study Shows Benefits of Holding 3rd Graders Back, but Few Are Being Retained

Research finds Indiana students make more academic progress than peers who weren't held back — and the benefits last through middle school.

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Underperforming Indiana third graders who are held back show significant progress for the next five years, a research study has found.

The study examined data from 2011-12 to 2016-17 and found that students who were retained in third grade scored about 18 points higher in English language arts and math in fourth grade than low-performing peers who were not retained. The gains continued through seventh grade, though at a slower rate. 

“I was surprised at the huge … positive effect,” said NaYoung Hwang, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of New Hampshire, who co-authored the report with Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri.

The study is unusual because it compares third graders who were retained with peers who scored just high enough to advance. These groups are expected to be statistically similar, Hwang added. 

Despite this progress, the number of Indiana students held back after third grade has been declining for years, sliding from 2.4%, or 1,535 students, in 2013 to 1.25%, or 762, in 2016, according to Hwang. 

Those 762 students were among 3,500 who did not pass the Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determinations, also known as IREAD3, in 2016 after being allowed to retake the exam over the summer. This year, nearly 5,000 students failed the test. State officials did not answer a request for information about how many of them repeated third grade.

The policy “hasn’t been uniformly applied anymore,” said Bob Behning, a state representative who chairs the education committee.

The study found no increases in absenteeism or discipline problems among students who were held back and showed positive benefits regardless of the student’s race, gender or family socio-economic status, Hwang added. 

She acknowledged that research focused on sixth- or eighth-graders who were retained has found lower graduation and higher dropout rates. “We need more studies and years” to determine if third-graders who are held back would follow this pattern, she added. 

The Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determinations, also known as IREAD3, requires third graders to score 446 or higher to pass. Students who don’t must be offered remediation and a chance to retake the test during the summer. State law also allows for what are called good-cause exemptions, which allow some third graders who don’t hit the required score to advance anyway. These include English learners, special education students and those who have already been retained twice.

Hwang said she undertook the study because retention is a much-debated policy. More than half the states allow or require schools to retain low-performing students after third grade, but the number actually held back seems to be shrinking. In Florida, for example, the retention rate went from 15% in 2002 to just 6% in 2010, according to a study by the RAND Corporation.

In Tennessee, where a new law threatened to hold back thousands of third graders, just 900 of the 44,000 students who scored low enough were actually held back. That’s 1.2%. Nearly 4,400 students were granted waivers to advance to the fourth grade after their parents appealed.

Reading experts said the research on retention is mixed. “We’re not seeing long-term benefits,” said Danielle Dennis, dean of the University of Rhode Island’s College of Education. “There’s been very little research [tracking students] into high school.”

She wondered if gains in Indiana came, in part, because such a small percentage of students were held back. Paying for an additional year of school and offering remediation would be harder with a significantly larger group, she said. 

“This [new report] gives us new info, not all the info,” Dennis said. 

“Overall, the weight of research evidence continues to be that there are not long-term benefits of retaining students,” said Nell Duke, executive director of the Center for Early Literacy Success and a professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan. 

However, she said research shows the benefits of summer programs and small-group reading interventions, noting that these measures can be used even when students are not retained. 

Even the students’ gains in seventh grade may not be enough to justify retention, she added, as funding an additional year of school, pulling children away from their peers and possibly increasing their chances of dropping out may not be worth an extra 7 points in reading. 

“I would characterize retention as not a high-priority policy move to improve long-term literacy. There are ways to spend funds and energy that are likely to have more lasting results,” Duke added. 

She also disputed the notion that the end of third grade marks a key change for students from learning to read to reading to learn: “Today’s standards expect children to learn from reading well before third grade, and students can continue to develop as readers, with proper instruction, well after fourth grade.”

Behning noted that Indiana has shifted its priorities about reading instruction in the past two years. A law this year created an approved science of reading curriculum list, offered literacy support for elementary schools where fewer than 70% of students pass IREAD3 and provides grants to teachers and schools that improve students’ reading skills. 

In 2022, the state and the Lilly Endowment combined to put together a $111 million investment in literacy education, the state’s largest expenditure in that area. The funds, in part, helped pay for instructional coaches in about 200 elementary schools, as well as targeted support for students who need the most help improving reading skills, and offered a stipend of up to $1,200 to K-3 teachers who participate in professional development in the science of reading. 

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