Will Two Years Of Second Grade Solve The Literacy Crisis?

A piece of the sky has landed on my head.

Similar the chick in the story Chicken Little, I am compelled to try to communicate to readers news about the falling sky, to translate a sense of urgency about the barriers to today’s children becoming fully equipped citizens of tomorrow. Unlike Chicken Little, my news, such as our children’s inability to read the world around them, is real.

Imagine my sky-is-falling hysteria after reading a Chalkbeat Tennessee article about Shelby County Schools’ decrease in reading performance just two years before a retention policy based on reading scores are set to go into effect.

Here are the facts:

  • In 2019, 76 percent of Shelby County’s 3rd graders are not reading proficiently.
  • A 3 percent increase of students not on track from the year prior.
  • In 2021, a Shelby County retention policy goes into effect, retaining 2nd graders who fail to meet a concoction of 8 of 12 benchmarks, “including minimum report card grades and reading scores, throughout the year…”

To wit, a vast majority this year’s kindergarten babies, in all their magic and wonder, have a 3 in 4 chance of being retained in 2nd grade. The tragedy is that there are a number of variables that contribute to a child’s inability to read at grade level and retention is more punitive rather than solution-oriented.

Let’s be clear if more than three-fourths of students are not reading at grade level, it’s not the children’s fault, yet they will be the ones forced to pay the price.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), “[s]tudies of grade retention have shown some positive effects in the short term, but negative in the long term, including increased risk for dropping out of high school.” Other arguments against the retention policy include the expense of an additional year of pupil costs and the integrity of curricula, interventions, and teaching training. Finally, what happens if at the end of the second 2nd-grade year the child fails to meet expectations?

A Silver Lining

Though I’m not alone in believing the sky is falling, there are others, however, who stand by grade retention policies thanks to Florida’s moderate success with its 3rd-grade retention policy implemented more than 15 years ago. Research from Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Martin West shows the policy has a positive impact on children’s K-12 schooling experience when retained in 3rd grade. West’s key takeaways:

  • Students retained in third grade under Florida’s test-based promotion policy experienced substantial short-term gains in both math and reading achievement. They were less likely to be retained in a later grade and better prepared when they entered high school.

  • Being retained in third grade led students to take fewer remedial courses in high school and improve their grade point averages.

  • There was no negative impact on graduation. Being held back did delay students’ graduation from high school by 0.63 years, but being older for their grade did not reduce their probability of graduating or receiving a regular diploma.

Cloudy With A Ray Of Hope

In my abbreviated research, I’ve come across more information in opposition to retention policies than in support citing a strong correlation between grade retention and dropout. What we know to be true is that high school dropouts make up 80 percent of the incarcerated population and half of all public assistance recipients.

Could retaining a child in 2nd grade negatively, even fatally, influence her life trajectory? Not likely. However, before exposing students to the trauma of feeling like a failure and being left behind, the district must create an environment that encourages success by providing robust teacher training, the best scientifically-based curriculum, and access to sound interventions.

Without these things, the retention policy is just an alternative mode of transport from school to prison and generational poverty.

One thought on “Will Two Years Of Second Grade Solve The Literacy Crisis?

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about retaining students in the third grade for two years. I agree with one commenter that this feels more like we are failing to teach these students to read. I find it all heartbreaking.


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