In the race to fix a nationwide reading crisis that worsened during the pandemic, more states are threatening to make students repeat third grade to help them catch up.
Tennessee, Michigan and North Carolina are among at least 16 states that have tried in recent years to use reading tests and laws requiring students to repeat third grade to improve literacy. Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Nevada have all passed similar laws that will go into effect in the coming years.
Politicians and educational officials say the goal isn’t to hold children back, but to create an incentive to do well while also reducing social promotion.
Tennessee state Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who co-sponsored a 2021 law that went into effect for students entering fourth grade this fall, said the threat of retention brings needed accountability.
“We cannot continue to kick the can down the road when it comes to reading literacy and proficiency with young people,” he said, citing a desire from businesses for a better-educated workforce.
Reading by the end of third grade is considered a pivotal benchmark, because students must be able to read in subsequent grades to learn math, science, social studies and other subjects. Third-graders who lack reading proficiency are four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to a 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Reading scores dropped last year on a federal reading test known as the Nation’s Report Card, with 33% of fourth-graders scoring proficient or higher in 2022, down from 35% in 2019.
Tying fourth-grade advancement to reading has fallen in and out of favor over the decades. Opponents say the policies cause families unnecessary stress and social turmoil for children, and can disproportionately impact minority students.