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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: The Haunted Third Grade Classrooms Children Fear: Enter and… Stay Forever!

Children fear third grade retention. It doesn’t motivate them to learn. They don’t read earlier because of it. Retention is not effective. It’s scary and could haunt a child forever.

Third grade retention laws are real for children in nineteen states. NEA Reports noted in 2017 that 16 states and Washington D.C. make it mandatory that students who don’t read at a certain level by the end of third grade will fail. Some exceptions are made for students with disabilities, ELL students, and students of color. Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia permit retention, but don’t mandate it.

It’s hard to imagine legislators so uninformed they would encourage, let alone mandate laws that are harmful to children!

Schools have always used retention, especially in earlier grades, but it was not mandatory, and not based on one test. Parents and teachers determined whether it might help a child. Even then, it wasn’t always a good strategy. The stigma attached to retention is often hurtful.

A year is eternity when a child is left behind. In some places, children have been kept back twice! Aside from the hurt of watching your friends move forward, most children who are retained might be small at the time they are held back, but they become more developed physically and socially than their peers.

Many retained students are bullied, or they themselves are the bully. Even when no bullying occurs outright, retained students are often bullied by the voices in their heads. Many exhibit low self-esteem and see themselves as failures.

Students most likely to be retained are  African American or Hispanic; have a late birthday, delayed development and/or attention problems; live in poverty or in a single-parent household; have parents with low educational attainment; have parents that are less involved in their education; or have changed schools frequently. Students who have behavior problems and display aggression or immaturity are more likely to be retained. Students with reading problems, including English Language Learners, are also more likely to be retained.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is a powerful corporate school reformer who made third grade retention one of his signature reform measures, even though retention has been around for years. There’s nothing innovative about failing third graders due to a test score. It’s punitive. Bush continues to push for third grade retention across the nation, ignoring the harm it can do to children.

Some researchers, likely supporters of Bush’s school reform, have tried to put a positive spin on retention. They claim it leads to short-term gains, and some students might do better in high school. But they also end their report by saying that the research doesn’t find that students were clearly better off as a result of retention.

Advocates for retention like to say that it’s better than socially promoting a student who is not showing progress on standardized testing. Simply promoting a child without consideration as to why they’re not making progress is wrong too.

Shane Jimerson a clinical school psychologist, has shown that neither retention nor social promotion for students having difficulty in schools is appropriate. Students need better assistance and alternative solutions. But retention is not the answer.

In Chicago, in 2005, Melissa Roderick and Jenny Nagaoka found that retained students performed poorly. Students who were retained under Chicago’s high-stakes testing policy continued to struggle during their retained year and faced significantly increased rates of special education placement. Among third graders, there is no evidence that retention led to greater achievement growth 2 years after the promotional gate. Among sixth graders, there is evidence that retention was associated with lower achievement growth.  

Students who have academic struggles, but who move on, do better in the long run. Students who are retained might seem to do better at first, but they drop back to having difficulties later. Many students who are retained go on to drop out of school.

State policymakers who endorse retention feel they’re raising reading expectations, but they should reconsider and drop retention.

Third grade retention is an abusive result of high-stakes testing. Its tentacles are long. Would parents and teachers push reading instruction on the littlest learners before they’re developmentally ready, if it weren’t for high-stakes testing and the fear of third grade retention?

Putting children through retention is unnecessary. Many other alternative solutions exist. Public schools can address the academic challenges that students face through means other than making students feel like failures. Here are better solutions (from a previous post).

  • Lowering class size. If teachers have fewer students, especially in earlier grades, they will be better able to address individual learning needs.
  • Providing age-appropriate preschools. Children who start out with rich early learning experiences, with exposure to play, good picture books and literary experiences, will likely have better learning results when they start school.
  • Give teachers time to work with students. Teachers need to be freed from the shackles of high-stakes standardized testing so they can better understand reading disabilities.
  • Kindergarten redshirting. If a child is younger than their classmates at the start of kindergarten they might be redshirted. Redshirting is having a child start kindergarten a year later. This isn’t always an easy decision.
  • Evaluate the child for learning disabilities. A school psychologist should do a battery of tests to determine why a student isn’t progressing. A resource class 1 – 2 hours each day to help a child catch up might be helpful and better than retention.
  • Check on the child’s life situation. Children with personal problems can’t focus on school. There might be an illness or divorce in the family. Maybe a parent lost a job. When such problems are resolved the child could get back on their feet. They might need time and help, however, to catch up.
  • It might be developmental. Some students learn a little slower. A growth spurt might be around the corner!
  • Loop classes. Schools combine classes like first and second grade, and students have the same teacher, allowing the teacher more time to understand the student. It may give students time to catch up.
  • Multi-level or multi-age classes. Several grades in a small setting with students working together—the one room schoolhouse idea—might assist a child.
  • Tutoring. Enlist the assistance of high school students looking for service activities. And/or bring in volunteers from local businesses so they can learn about the difficulties facing students.
  • Summer school. This might give the child more attention and a smaller more relaxed class setting, but they should get a vacation too! Reading should be relaxed and enjoyable.
  • Absences might mean retention. Some children are immature and miss a lot of school. If they are small and have not bonded with classmates, retention might be a valid consideration—especially in kindergarten. This is not based on one test score but serious consideration of much information.

Let’s help children once again look forward to third grade.

Previous Posts About Retention

Force and Flunk, Tougher Kindergarten Lead to Parental Dissatisfaction with Public Schools
JULY 21, 2019
FORCE & FLUNK: Destroying a Child’s Love of Reading—and Their Life
OCTOBER 9, 2017
What’s Scary to Kids: Having Dyslexia and Being Held Back in Third Grade!
OCTOBER 31, 2016
Jeb Bush, Retention, and the Failed Ferris Wheel of School Reform
OCTOBER 1, 2016
For You Michigan!—You Are WRONG about Retention!
OCTOBER 17, 2015
13 Reasons Why Grade Retention is Terrible, and 12 Better Solutions
MAY 30, 2015


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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has a...