In a growing number of states a single reading test determines which third-grade
students advance to fourth grade. Proponents of the rule say that kids learn to
read until third grade, and then read to learn. But critics argue that holding
students back does more harm than good in the long run.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The age of eight
or nine, when kids complete third grade, represents a key turning point. Up
until then, children are learning to read. Afterwards, they read to learn. Many
educators believe that kids who can't read should be held back, and several
states use standardized tests. Kids who don't pass are automatically held back,
Critics say such a policy is counterproductive and mean-spirited. Both sides
cite statistics in support. But in most places, these decisions are not
automatic, and in the coming weeks, teachers and parents will face the tough
decision to hold back kids who struggle with reading or not.
If you're a teacher or a parent making that decision, if you were held back,
tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the
conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the White House dinner that changed history: Deborah
Davis on Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and guest of honor. But first,
third grade and reading and retention. And let's see if we can begin with a
caller. Let's begin with Tina, Tina on the line with us from Lansing,
CONAN: Hi, Tina.
TINA: You know, I, like I briefly told you, my daughter really struggled with
her reading, and I had felt that maybe she needed to be held back in third
grade, but the school really fought me on it. When she got into fourth grade, it
was very evident she was not ready. She struggled with her grades. It affected
And coming into the end of her fourth grade, I put my foot down, and I said
she's not going forward. I held her back in fourth grade. As a result of that,
her reading has greatly improved. Her grade level has come up almost to A's,
nothing but A's and B's. It's improved her own self-esteem and her own
And so I don't see where - I mean, I know some of the kids do pick on her,
but we sat down and talked about it so that she knew what we were doing, why
were doing it, and she was on board with it, and it was the best decision I ever
made for the future of my daughter.
CONAN: But a difficult decision, nonetheless.
TINA: It was difficult and - you know, because there's a lot that goes into,
you know, holding them back because the kids that she's been going to school
with are now moving on without her. And she's now in with the younger children.
But bottom line is you've got to do what's going to be best for her,
And she would have continued to struggle if we had allowed her just to go on.
And I couldn't see doing that because how it was affecting not only her overall
grades, but her self-esteem.
CONAN: And this was a decision, obviously, you reached after talking to her
teachers and the school. Do you think that such decisions should be made
TINA: I don't think maybe necessarily automatically. I think that the parent
should be brought in, and it should be discussed with the parent and given the
pros and cons, and then the school and the parent together make a decision.
CONAN: All right, Tina. I'm glad it worked out in your case.
TINA: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Joining us now is Tim Taylor, who's the president of Colorado
Succeeds, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders that work to change
Colorado's education system. His organization supported the Colorado READ Act,
which recently passed in the Colorado legislature. He joins us from member
station KUVO in Denver. Nice to have you with us today.
TIM TAYLOR: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you worked for legislation in Colorado that would have passed, had
automatic retention if kids failed the standardized reading test. They would
have been held back automatically. Why were you in favor of that?
TAYLOR: The legislation here is a little bit different. We did model it off
of some other legislation around the country, where there is an automatic bar,
or automatic line in the sand that kids have to pass.
Here in Colorado, what we want to do is we want to make sure that kids are
identified early, that we give them all the supports we possibly can, and that
retention is considered an option for these kids if they don't have the skills
to move forward.
If you're unable to read coming out of the third grade, and in fourth grade,
we no longer teach reading in U.S. public schools, the kids can't read a math
word problem. They can't read instructions on a science experiment, the
teachers' notes on a white board. Their odds of success are so low at that
We know that 90 percent of high school dropouts did not read on the
third-grade level, and it's one of the strongest predictors of high school
graduation success. So this was something that we looked at, and we said: If the
pipeline is broken, and we're not getting kids to and through and prepared for
college, how do we back this up, and where are the pitfalls and the areas that
we can take a look at?
CONAN: As I understand, the legislation in Colorado, again, it does not
provide for automatically holding a kid back who fails this test, and also
provides additional funds for the schools to work with those kids who are
struggling with their reading.
TAYLOR: That's correct. There was $21 million that was put into this piece of
legislation that is for support, to give the kids every chance they can. What
the legislation does require is that there's a conversation between the parent,
the teacher and the principal to let folks know, let these parents know that
their kid is behind, and they're at risk of falling further behind because of
the child's reading skills.
In kindergarten, first and second grade, the parent has final say to overrule
that recommendation that the child be considered for retention. By third grade,
this final decision comes down to the superintendent of the school district.
They have to sign on to say that this child, they believe, has the skills
necessary to go on and succeed.
And what's so important here is there are 34 percent of kids - according to
the National Assessment of Educational Progress - around the country who score
below basic. This is functionally illiterate, unable to read "The Cat in the
Hat" at the end of third grade. And these kids moving forward into the fourth
grade, that 34 percent starts to impact the other percentage of kids in the
So by fifth, sixth grade, you've got 100 percent of the student body being
impacted because the teacher has to change curriculum to address a number of
significance, the 34 percent of these kids who are coming through the system
unable to read.
CONAN: Joining us now from member KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona is David Berliner,
Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University and an educational
psychologist. Good of you to be with us today.
DAVID BERLINER: Thank you.
CONAN: And do you agree that this third grade juncture is absolutely
BERLINER: Well, I think it's critical, but I think the response of Colorado -
while remarkably responsible because they've read the literature - is also a
little misguided. Leaving kids back, we know from research, is - it sometimes
improves achievement temporarily, for a small number of the repeaters, but over
time, grade repeaters fall further and further behind other low achievers who
have been promoted.
And the repeaters also drop out more frequently. That's really not
controversial, and I think Colorado knows this and has passed sensible
legislation, in a way. But they don't know which kids will profit from being
left behind - none of us do - and it's hard to make public policy based on
Some kids are helped, I don't doubt that. But only between 10 and 25 percent
of smokers get lung cancer. The vast majority of smokers do not get lung cancer.
Does that mean we should rescind the policy that makes it mandatory to warn
people that smoking's a bad choice? Of course not.
Just because some kids are helped by retention in grades doesn't mean it's
good policy. That's the reasoning of illogic here. You make policy based on good
odds, and the odds are that retention in grade is bad for the kids who are
retained. It's bad socially, emotionally, and they don't seem to catch up. And
they drop out at higher rates.
CONAN: I understand the - what you're saying socially and emotionally,
everybody has experience of - we've all been to school and understand the trauma
involved in being held back. Nevertheless, if they can't read at a third-grade
level, they've gone into fourth grade, where they no longer teach reading, how
are they ever going to catch up?
BERLINER: Well, we all agree that neither retention nor promotion is
beneficial to struggling students or their school if it's not accompanied by
effective, programmatic interventions. And those usually mean extending learning
time. You need opportunities for children to get after-school tutoring on
weekends and in the summer. They need to be in safe and supervised
Programs must offer homework assistance, intensive tutoring in basic skills,
counseling and enrichment. Waiting till you make a decision to leave them back
is a little late. Does Colorado have preschool and kindergarten mandatory for
poor kids? Does it have tutoring for first and second-graders whose teachers say
they need it? Does it have summer programs for these struggling kids, or have
those funds been cut?
Has Colorado cut or added librarians to school to help children with reading?
Because librarians play a big role in this. Does Colorado have smaller classes
in first and second grade so as to give struggling students more chances to be
served individually by teachers?
Those are also ways to cut that number of struggling students down
CONAN: Tim Taylor, you're not a spokesperson for the Colorado Public Schools.
You're an advocate. But can you help us answer some of those questions that
David Berliner posed?
TAYLOR: Well, I mean, many of those things are very important, and we believe
that the policy in Colorado takes a look at the entire spectrum of what's going
on in literacy in Colorado. The first and most important thing is early
identification of these kids. And we know, in Colorado, we're getting that right
most of the time.
The Department of Education is on top of it, and we're getting - about 90
percent of the research is showing us that we've got the right kids. We know who
they are. And the second thing is to intervene as early as possibly can -
kindergarten, first, second - and give those kids every opportunity you can.
That's where this bill has injected $21 million worth of supports to make sure
that the kids get this.
And as an option of last resort, if the kids are not literate by the end of
the third grade, we have got to stop lying to them and putting them into fourth
grade, where they don't have the skills to succeed. One of the things that this
bill does in Colorado is changes the culture around literacy. It makes it one of
the most important things that can happen in a child's life by the time they get
to the end of third grade.
And that is really at the core of what our bill wanted to and what we
succeeded in doing, and that is because we've had flat literacy rates in the
United States for the past decade. It is time to act. We are failing these kids
at an alarming rate.
CONAN: Let's get Jerry on the line, Jerry with us from Jamesville in
JERRY: Yeah, hi. I just wanted to say that, like, that woman was talking
CONAN: That her - she made the decision to hold her child back, and...
JERRY: Yeah, and that the child was - her self-esteem, that's the word I was
looking for. And it was just the opposite with me. I was in third grade, and I
was held back, and my self-esteem went down after I was held back. All the other
students and kids of my age went forward, and I felt belittled and small. And I
was passing my grades at that time with C's and B's. I wasn't an all-A student,
but I was passing.
And in the tests, in giving a report on a book, I could give you the color of
the eyes, and if somebody had six toes. I mean, I was able to, you know, give
that kind of information. And from that point on, I was able to - I wasn't able
to basically open a book again. I was - I mean, I've read, but I read very slow,
but I cannot comprehend. And I can understand, but because I'm slow at
CONAN: So it obviously didn't work in your case, Jerry. Did - how did you do?
Did you graduate school and move on?
JERRY: That's just it. That's just it. I didn't even graduate. I stayed in
school, I loved school. I actually loved school. I just - I made it to the end
of my 12th year of school, of high school, ended up dropping out because I just,
I couldn't seem to ever get caught up. Everybody that I knew - I mean, I
CONAN: Jerry, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, but thank you
very much for the call. We're talking about retention. It's the TALK OF THE
NATION, from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're
talking about the debate over how to help third-graders who can't read at grade
level: Hold them back a year and help them improve, as some states require, or,
as others say, avoid the stigma and consequences of retention and promote
students to the fourth grade, but give them extra reading help through tutors or
If you're a teacher or a parent making that tough decision, if you were held
back, call and tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can
also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF
Two people with different views on the matter are with us: Tim Taylor, who
serves as president of Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit coalition of business
leaders focused on Colorado's education system, and David Berliner, educational
psychologist and Regent's professor of Education at Arizona State
David Berliner, I know you will take issue with some of the statistics that
Tim Taylor has. He will take issue with yours. People here are, on both sides,
people of goodwill who are trying to fix the system. Is it simply a matter of
BERLINER: Well, I think it is a lot of resources. But I want to get at a
point that one of your callers had, that she saw a great growth in her daughter.
What she didn't have was identical twins. If she had identical twins and had let
one go ahead and be promoted and kept one back, the research overwhelmingly says
that the one who was promoted would have done better and been more personally
secure in schooling.
That research is really incontrovertible. It's not a matter of disagreeing on
the data. Retention in grade is a bad choice. Now, the Colorado legislation says
it should be the choice of last resort. I agree. They're certainly wise enough
to say we need to do everything else. But Colorado is not facing some facts
about the reading problem, like it's got one of the fastest growing poverty
rates in the nation.
It's got about 17 percent of its children in poverty, and that means that the
kids who are going to be left back are likely to be poor. They're likely to be
boys. They're likely to be minorities. They're likely to be English-language
learners. Do you really want a system that, as a last resort, discriminates?
And it seems to me what you need to do is put lots more money in up front, so
that you don't reach that point of last resort.
CONAN: Tim Taylor, I hate to inject - I hate to be the one injecting even
more statistics, but it is three times more likely that somebody retained at
third-grade level will be African-American, twice as likely that they will be
TAYLOR: Yeah, and some of those demographic trends that David mentioned is
the reason we did this. In the past, most retention had been done on a
subjective level, and we need it to be done objectively. And if - one of the
places that we looked as we did this legislation was in Florida, where their
low-income population reading scores grew by two-and-a-half grade levels between
1998 and 2009, when they put this policy in place.
In Colorado at the same time period, our scores grew by four points. It's
incredible that we could envision leaving these kids behind, and just because
they are low-income, or they are children of color, that they can't read, or we
wouldn't expect for them to read.
We have got to change the culture around this and expect that every child is
able to read. It's the only shot they've got to compete in a competitive global
economy, is to have the reading skills they'll need to go out and get a job. Our
employers do not have jobs for kids who are unable to read coming out of high
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Koshaun(ph), Koshaun with us from
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
KOSHAUN: Hi. I'm a high school math teacher, and I agree with both gentlemen
on your panel. It's a struggle when the kids are promoted without being able to
read, because, of course, it eliminates their ability to comprehend. And being a
high school math teacher, it's a challenge when the kids cannot understand what
the instructions are. And when they read at an extremely slow rate, it's like
they're trying to memorize words. So they kind of shut down on word
Now, I also agree that retention is not always the answer. I support some
type of intervention. And if the third grade is where these decisions are being
made, I think that the parents should have some option, or someone will have
something in place to where if it's just reading alone - because you have some
kids that can excel in other areas, but may struggle in reading. They have
spatial sense. They have strong memory skills that may help them to excel in
other subject areas.
And it's also affected by the teaching strategy, what type of instruction
that they have. And if they're retained, and they're placed in the same
environment, where the parents aren't supporting the kids' reading, or the
parents don't have the kids reading beyond the school setting, then who's to say
that retaining that student would help?
CONAN: Yeah, and I hear what you're saying, Koshaun, but resources - as you
know far better than I - are limited.
KOSHAUN: They are limited. And the thing about it is accountability has to be
placed, and I think on the parents. But in a lot of cases - what is sad - is
that you don't have the parental support, or the parents don't have the
resources, in a lot of cases, for these kids that are failing. And the ones that
do, I think they go out, and they acquire the resources on their own.
And with budget cuts, a lot of school systems don't have the supplemental
education services in place. But a lot of areas, they do, and a lot of kids,
unfortunately, they don't take advantage of it. And it is frustrating, you know,
seeing kids entering high school that really cannot read, and I'll give an
Right now, I'll call out eight words, just: tear open top of bag along dotted
line. Now it's difficult to remember those eight words, but I gave you the
instructions to open an air freshener. It just says tear open top of bag along
dotted lines. Now, trying to remember those eight words may appear to be a
challenge, and imagine a kid reading 22 words of instructions. And they just
And these are some challenges that I know myself face as a math teacher, and
other instructors, also. But it is something that a decision will have to be
made, and it's going to be based on what satisfies, I guess, the greater good.
Again, the accountability, though, it has to take place at home.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Koshaun. Appreciate it. David Berliner,
given that we live in a world of limited resources, should more of them be
devoted to this particular age group?
BERLINER: Well, I think so. I think we find other countries - for example,
Finland and South Korea - which beat us every time we do the international
tests, do not allow grade retention. What do they do instead? Finland makes sure
that every kid gets help along the way whenever they fall behind.
You get pneumonia and you're out six weeks, you get tutoring to help you
catch up. You're falling behind in second grade, you get tutoring to help you
catch up. Finland invests in making sure no kid falls behind. What Colorado is
trying to do is very laudable, making sure no kid falls behind, but then they're
saying if we fail, we're going to leave them back. And my argument is that's
still the wrong decision to be made.
CONAN: And as you know, there are other states, such as Florida, which we
mentioned, where retention is not - it's automatic. If you fail the test, you're
BERLINER: Arizona, my state, is doing the same thing, and I think it's the
wrong decision for almost the entire group they'll leave back, and it's also a
CONAN: Let's go next to Kathleen, Kathleen with us from New Bern in North
KATHLEEN: Hello. Thank you so much. I was held back in first grade because my
age. I was apparently too young or too old. Anyway, I turned seven in October
when I got into first grade, and it completely affected my self-esteem. I felt
like I was dumb. And I couldn't do well on standardized tests, which led me to
not pass a certain test that determined whether or not I would go into a gifted
And when that happened, I felt like I was not only left behind by my age
group, but also my intellectual peers. It was really frustrating and very sad.
But I got help later, but I fell through the cracks of the public school
CONAN: And Tim Taylor, this is - I know you believe sincerely that retention
is, in some cases, clearly the best thing to do, but the effects - as Kathleen
and some of our other callers have illustrated - they're very real.
TAYLOR: Oh, absolutely. And in that case, it sounded like the retention was
done based on an age piece. And what we're trying to identify is whether the
kids have the skills. And we need to change the culture in our schools so that
isn't done in some schools, but not in others, or a teacher has the final
decision. This is something where we have to look at the test scores, find out
whether the student has the capacity.
And if we change the culture across the board, this is not going to be a
stigma for these kids. This is what's going to be happening to all their peers
around them. And what - the gift that we're going to give them is the joy and
the love of reading so they can succeed through the rest of their school career,
and they can read to learn when they're in high school and college, when they're
going to need those skills to be productive citizens.
CONAN: Let's talk to Jenny, Jenny with us from Mulvane in Kansas.
JENNY: Yes, hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
JENNY: I have two sons, one who's graduating this year and one who is in
seventh grade. And both - one in math, and one in reading - that would pass the
standardized test, but was failing their daily work and their class work. I'm a
stay-at-home mom who would help and try and get the teachers' attention, and
they passed my children. And as they got older, they now struggle, have
struggled, with both math and reading.
I had asked that my younger son be held back both in third and fourth grade.
And they went ahead and passed him because they couldn't hold him back, they
said, because he passed the standardized test.
CONAN: And you wish there had been an option.
JENNY: Right. And now he's in seventh grade, and he honestly has told me
himself that it wouldn't have been a bad thing had he been held beck because
then he wouldn't feel so left behind now. He struggles now. And honestly, what I
think our - we need is to get rid of summer break. Two long breaks in a year,
you know, maybe a couple more besides the holidays. But wasn't summer break
meant for when we had farms and we needed our children to come help harvest our
crops? This is a little old-fashioned, and I think everybody is moving past
CONAN: I hear what you're saying, but it's another idea for another day.
We're just trying to focus on one issue at a time, Jenny. But thanks very much
for the call, and we wish your children the best of luck.
JENNY: Oh, they're doing pretty well now, but he does struggle more than what
I think he and I think he should have. They did not hold him back.
CONAN: Jenny, thanks very much. This is an email from Cindy(ph): After
spending over 30 years as a school library media specialist, I'm convinced
retaining students who have not reached grade-level goals by third grade is good
practice. I watch students fall farther and farther behind, year after year,
when earlier intervention could have changed their entire school experience. Our
school system is one-size-fits-all into which we put individuals whose readiness
is not all the same. Letting students experience success by giving them a second
chance is good for the child, not a punishment for their nonperformance. It may
also prevent future problems that students who lag behind in school often
And, David Berliner, again, these are anecdotal, but these are...
CONAN: ...people with experience, suggesting that this might be a good
BERLINER: Well, you've cast the problem as retention and promotion as if
these are the only options and the whole debate we're getting today is about
that, and it's not. Colorado is willing to spend money on leaving kids back. I
don't know what they spend per kid in elementary school. Let's say it's $10,000
a year. So the state has committed to spend an extra $10,000 to leave a kid back
in third grade.
Why not spend that $10,000 on tutoring services for the child in fourth and
fifth grade to help the child catch up? It's not just the choice of retention or
promotion. It's a choice of how are you going to use the resources you've
already committed by the state to the child?
And I would suggest that the tutoring option would work just as well. You put
the kid back, you're going to put the kid back with 30 more kids. The teacher is
going to have limited time to work with that kid. You might as well invest in a
tutor with the money you are already going to spend by leaving the kid back.
CONAN: Tim Taylor, was that considered as an option, or how did this issue
come to focus on retention in third grade?
TAYLOR: We hope that we found the balance in Colorado and that, again, that
we try to do both. We don't think it's an either/or. We are putting significant
funds and $16 million for summer school reading tutors, full-day kindergarten,
other pieces that will help get - kids get prepared. But as they move through
the system, we just want to make sure that by the time they get to the end of
third grade, they have the skills they'll need to succeed in the fourth
And I want to be really clear about this as well, is that we're talking about
the functionally illiterate. This is - these are kids who are truly not just a
little bit below grade level, but who are functionally illiterate. And some kids
just need a little bit more time, and there is nothing wrong with that. It's a
falsehood to think that we're just going to push them through the system and
everybody is going to get this at the same time. But it's like building a
If you have a foundation and the foundation isn't quite ready, you wouldn't
dare put the second or the third stories on that house. So let's make sure that
we let the foundation set and the kids have the skills they need, and then we
can build something really meaningful on top of that. And they can succeed and
have - be productive citizens and contribute to our economy.
CONAN: Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds. He's with us from KUVO,
our member station in Denver. David Berliner, Regents' professor of education in
Arizona State University, with us from member station KJZZ in Tempe. You're
listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this from Joy(ph) in Alabama: I heard your topic on my local NPR station,
WBHM. I think that's in Birmingham. Pretty sure it is. I'm struggling with this
because my son in first grade has been considered for retention by his teacher
and administrators. They say he's immature. However, he can read at a first
grade instructional level. However, he can do math, word problems without an
issue. We, his parents, do not want to retain him. When we discussed it with
him, he was against it. Looking for opinions on this. He is a May birthday, and
can they keep saying he's just so young? What to do?
David Berliner, any...
BERLINER: Yes. I met a kindergarten teacher who retained a kid because he was
immature. And I said, so the decision to help the child mature is to leave them
with more immature children instead of with more mature children, in which he'll
learn the social norms of what maturity means? It's the same issue here.
By leaving the kid back, you're ensuring that the child will be with more
immature children. By promoting the child, if it's an immaturity issue, you're
at least putting the child in a classroom where the children are gaining
For the immaturity excuse for leaving the kid back, I think that's just a
terrible reason to do so. You want the kid - if the kid is so immature, promote
him a grade or two so that the kid is hanging out with mature people and he
learns the skills of maturity.
CONAN: So if it's a immaturity issue, perhaps the mistake was made at the
BERLINER: Yes, I think so.
CONAN: All right. As we go ahead and other states consider such legislation,
David Berliner, why do you think it has become a political issue to focus on
reading at third grade level?
BERLINER: Well, I think we all agree - Tim and I, and everyone else in the
country agrees - that if you have a problem at third grade with a kid, the
predictions are pretty dire. So we know we need to do something. The question is
what do you do? And are you willing to invest in those kids the money you need?
The commitment is made when you leave a kid back to invest roughly $10,000 in
that kid. There has to be better ways to do it, given everything we know about
the effects of leaving a child back, both the personal effects, the
social-emotional. And frankly, the data is pretty overwhelming that they don't
do better in the long run, and they drop out at five times the rate of kids who
are not left back, according to the National Center for Statistics.
So what we need are other methods to cope with the child who's not reading
well. And again, I think the Colorado legislation is pretty clear. They're
trying to do that. I just think the final decision that they're going to make on
a kid is still the wrong one.
CONAN: Tim Taylor, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it. Tim
Taylor joined us from KUVO, our member station in Denver. And our thanks as well
to David Berliner, who you just heard, who's a professor of education at Arizona
State University with us from KJZZ in Tempe. Coming up: President Theodore
Taylor - excuse me - President Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington and the
White House dinner that changed history. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the
TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.