Should Struggling Readers Be Retained In 3rd Grade?

Written by: Jason Burns

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 10, 2016

Last October, the Michigan House of Representatives passed HB 4822, a bill that if also passed by the Senate would require schools to hold back 3rd grade students who read below grade level. The intent of the bill is to make sure that students are academically prepared before entering later grades, but it has sparked significant controversy. Advocates argue that ending social promotion, sending students to higher grade levels regardless of their achievement, will help to improve literacy and prepare students for more advanced studies. Others counter that mandatory retention would disproportionately impact English Language Learners and remove parents from the decision of whether or not to retain their child.

The Importance of 3rd Grade Literacy

While HB 4822 has been controversial, the importance of reading proficiency in 3rd grade is not disputed. One reason that the 3rd grade is so important is because it marks a transition when students move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” meaning that reading becomes more central to students’ learning of new content. As a result, students who are behind in reading are likely to lose more ground to their peers in reading, as well as other classes.

Another factor that makers 3rd grade literacy so critical is that reading proficiency in 3rd grade has a strong relationship with a range of later outcomes.  Students who are not proficient readers in 3rd grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school on time than are proficient readers. Students who fall below the proficiency threshold in 3rd grade are also only about half as likely to attend college as students who were proficient readers in 3rd grade.

The link between 3rd grade literacy and later outcomes, along with recognition that as many as two-thirds of U.S. third-graders are not proficient in reading, has drawn the attention of advocates and policymakers, but a solution to this problem is not immediately clear.


From the research on the link between third grade reading and student outcomes, one may conclude that requiring students to read proficiently in 3rd grade before progressing would ensure that students are put on the right path. This is the logic of HB 4822. However, retaining students may also have an impact on a student’s future.

A number of studies find that holding students back a grade has long-term negative effects. Being retained can shape a student’s perception of themselves, possibly leading them to believe that they are not “smart” and thus decreasing their motivation to learn. Retention has also been found to be a significant predictor of dropping out of high school. Therefore, retaining students until they reach grade-level proficiency may be akin to, as one study puts it, “winning the battle but losing the war.”

Reading Laws in Other States

Several states already have laws that mandate retention of 3rd graders who are not proficient readers and these may help to determining whether a law like HB 4822 would improve outcomes for Michigan’s students. A study of a 3rd grade proficiency requirement in Texas found that students who were held back due to the law did have higher achievement in later years, suggesting that retention may indeed make sure that students have the requisite skills that are needed for higher levels of learning. However, the long-term effects of retention were not considered in that study.

An analysis of a 3rd grade reading law in Florida may also be informative. Comparing students who just missed the proficiency cutoff with those who just made it, the authors found that students who were retained did have higher levels of achievement in subsequent years, but that this faded out over time. The authors also found that retained students were not more likely to later drop out of high school. Based on these findings, the  report’s authors concluded that a mandatory retention policy may benefit students. However, a recent review of this study points to several issues with the generalizability of its findings.

Considering the existing evidence, a requirement that struggling readers be retained in 3rd grade is unlikely to change the educational trajectory of Michigan’s students. Since post-retention achievement gains are short-lived, the academic benefits are negligible in the long-run. And, as discussed above, retaining students creates a disruption in a child’s life that can have a negative impact on their self-perception that may cause them to disengage from their education. As one report puts it “retention alone is ineffective at improving student achievement.” Rather than waiting until the end of 3rd grade to determine whether a student may advance to the next level, policymakers should seek ways to support struggling students through what we know is a critical period in their education.

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Jason Burns
Jason Burns is a second-year doctoral student in Educational Policy. His research interests include the application of theories from economics, behavioral economics, and psychology to understand how teachers, students, and administrators use information to make decisions. Before coming to MSU, Jason taught high school social studies, wrote curriculum, and developed assessments for Howard County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. Jason holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.