Student Retention Rates and Standardized Testing

Student retention and standardized testing. These are two of the most controversial topics within education. Did you know they actually go hand in hand?

Student retention, or holding them back, often brings up a number of questions. Does retaining students in their current grade and repeating a school year address the deficits the students are presenting with in the first place? Are families forced to comply with a retention recommendation? Are there alternate options to better address student deficits?

In today’s post, we are going to take a deeper look at student retention policies, why those policies are in effect, and the basis for those retentions.

Retention Policies: What Are We Hoping to Retain Through Retention?

Legislators and policy-makers have, for decades, sought out ways to improve failing literacy rates in our schools. The issue of gaps in student literacy has gained greater significance alongside the post-pandemic “learning loss.” 

Read more about how the pandemic policies have impacted students and teachers in these other posts on the One-Room Education blog here, here and here.

Retention Explained

Retention policies are the result of lawmakers introducing bills to try to improve literacy skills and close gaps. When students in third grade do not reach a required level of proficiency, they are not promoted to fourth grade. 

Retention policies are the result of lawmakers introducing bills to try to improve literacy skills and close gaps.

California was the first state to adopt a mandatory retention policy for [elementary] students in the 3rd grade in 1998. The law stated that those students who, at the end of 3rd grade, did not demonstrate proficient literacy skills (determined by standardized reading test scores) would not move on to 4th grade. 

Since 1998, 17 other states have joined California in adopting mandatory 3rd grade retention laws. Twelve additional states allow the retention, but do not require it. That number still continues to grow. 

Why Third Grade, You Ask?

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropic charity that focuses on the well-being and future of American children of all backgrounds, prioritizing projects aimed at giving children better outcomes in life, has the answer. One of the largest initiatives at the Annie E. Casey Foundation is the KIDS COUNT Data Center (KCDC). The data they compile assesses overall child well-being (foster care numbers, juvenile justice numbers, etc.). 

In fact, 88% of those who did not complete high school were struggling readers in 3rd grade. 

In their comprehensive annual report, the KCDC 2010 report addresses high-school dropout numbers. The data collected from their long-term study revealed that students who were not proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade were four times as likely to not finish high school when compared to proficient readers. 

girl in blue long sleeve shirt reading book

In fact, 88% of those who did not complete high school were struggling readers in 3rd grade. 

You may be asking: Is it really that important to earn a high school diploma? Statistically speaking, yes. Dropout rates are directly linked to poor economic and health outcomes, as well as higher likelihoods of incarceration. The statistics are mind-boggling. 

Each annual group of high-school dropouts will cost our society over 200 billion dollars in their lifetimes. The majority of these funds stem from public welfare and crime. 

The Real Costs of Dropping Out of High School

According to the National Dropout Prevention Center, 75% of state prison inmates and 59% of federal inmates in the United States did not finish high-school. Not to mention, taxpayers pay 224 billion dollars at the expense of adult illiteracy annually. This comes in the form of remedial education, welfare payments, crime, lost taxes, and job ineptitude (National Reading Panel).  

This data just scratches the surface of the impact that those who drop out of high school have on society. 

Retention With Good Intentions

This data has served as the catalyst for a focus on proficient literacy skills by the end of 3rd grade. COVID-19 “learning loss” sparked other states to scramble for a solution to low literacy rates.

Nevada put a retention policy into effect on July 1st 2019, Michigan adopted the policy during the 2019-2020 academic school year, and Tennessee is slated to follow suit beginning in the 2023-2024 school year. 

A student is identified as a “non-proficient” reader if they score at the lowest achievement level on the end-of-year state assessment, indicating that the student reads one or more grade levels below the required third grade level. 

Why has retention become so common, and why are literacy rates dropping? Head to the blog to check out the series on Falling Literacy Rates (find Part One here and Part Two here). 

Can Students Un-Qualify or “Get Out of” This Policy?

Good cause means that an individual is exempt from certain requirements of a program. There are good cause exemptions in educational programs, including retention policies. 

Good cause exemptions for students who would otherwise be retained vary by state and district, but they may include some of the following:

  • Students with limited English vocabulary and limited instruction in an ESL (English as a Second Language) program
  • Students with disabilities who have an IEP (individual education plan) that do not take the standardized assessment or have received reading remediation with a continued reading deficiency and a previous history of retention
  • Students who demonstrate a high level of performance on an approved alternative standardized reading assessment
  • Students with a portfolio showing they are reading on grade level by mastering state standards that equal mastery on the standardized assessment

Other Options

Parents and families do have options if their child fails to demonstrate reading proficiency at the end of 3rd grade. As with good cause exemptions, these options vary slightly by state, but most retention laws outline similar pathways of opportunity for the child to demonstrate mastery. 

teacher discussing her lesson with her student

Many states offer a summer learning program that focuses on literacy. Enrollment is optional, but to decline enrollment results in automatic retention for the upcoming school year. 

If, at the end of the program, the student can demonstrate proficiency on a state-approved assessment, they are granted advancement to 4th grade. If they still fail to demonstrate proficiency, they remain retained for the upcoming school year and are typically placed in an accelerated reading class and/or reading intervention services. 

Let’s Talk About Standardized Testing

Fundamentally, standardized tests are an outdated measure of student learning. Sure, if the purpose is to measure student understanding of concrete ideas, then multiple choice questions are a viable option.

man in white crew neck t shirt sitting on chair while holding white pen

Standardized tests at the elementary level ask questions in a multiple-choice format, with one correct answer. The abstract and hypothetical language used on these assessments unfairly puts our children at an automatic disadvantage according to Jean Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development. 

Standardized testing does not consider these developmental differences when scoring.

According to this theory, the majority of third grade students are in the pre-operational stage. In other words, they are pre-logical and think in concrete terms. A typical third grade student is between 7-8 years old. Pre-Operational stage ends at age 7, and logic begins to somewhat form at age 8. Standardized testing does not consider these developmental differences when scoring. 

What are some downfalls of standardized testing?

  • These tests measure how well classroom instruction was remembered, not competence.
  • Assessments are one-size-fits all measures with one correct answer, and do not allow for individuality and unique thought processes.
  • Standardized tests measure the lowest level of cognition, not higher-order thinking. Look at Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Is It Working or Does Holding Students Back Hold Them Back in Other Ways?

In 2013, a NEA analysis revealed that there is “no definitive evidence that test-based retention in early grades is beneficial for students in the long run.” 

The RAND Corporation released an analysis in 2018 that suggests that middle school students were more likely to drop out following retention, and that retention increased special education placement. 

Apart from this evidence, many parents and teachers are less than pleased with the retention policies. Students and parents feel the testing is unfair and causes unnecessary anxiety. 

school desk with stationery and backpacks on chairs

Testing does not take into account the progress a student makes throughout the school year and supports they may have access to. There is also no guarantee that retention and repetition of third grade will ensure proficient reading levels. With that in mind, what is the point?

Parents have been speaking up. Listen to this episode of The State of Education Podcast to hear about the importance of parental involvement in their children’s education.

Research tells us that fear and humiliation are not the strongest motivators for struggling students. Too many will simply give up on school, largely because they feel like the school system has already given up on them.

Edley Jr. & Wald

Ways to Address the Deficits: Alternative Programming

The National Education Association (NEA) is advocating for ways to measure student progress other than standardized testing. Shyrell Eubanks, a senior policy analyst for the NEA and former teacher in Maryland, makes the following claim: 

Retaining a student should always be the last resort and should not be determined by a single test score. Other factors such as a student’s progress made during the school year, input from teachers and parents and the availability of student supports must be taken into account. Retention alone does not ensure that students will read proficiently after completing the third grade a second time.


So What Are Some Alternatives?

Instead of a singular test, the NEA promotes the use of multiple methods, including assessment directly related to the materials and curriculum used in the classroom. Furthermore, a whole child approach that targets students’ physical, social, and emotional well-being by offering nonacademic services should be included.

“With a better system in place, educators can help reduce the need for punitive retention policies.” (NEA)

Share Your Opinion

Retention. Is it an effective solution to increase literacy rates? If so, what should retention be based on? Are standardized tests an effective means of determining if students can move on to the next grade level?

Maybe you have personal experience with this policy. Were you or any of your students or children retained? How did you, as the student, parent, or teacher, feel about the situation?

Are you aware if your district has any good cause exemptions? If so, what are they?

Maybe as an educator, you don’t agree with the policy, but you feel like your hands are tied. Now is your chance to chime in!

girl in old fashioned dress standing in library holding books



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