Make us your home page


Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Racial bias and irony in retaining third-graders



When Florida kicked off its controversial third-grade retention policy in 2003, critics feared that poor and minority students would unfairly bear the brunt. And in a way, they have, concludes a new study by researchers Jay Greene and Marcus Winters.

But the retained students are also coming out the better for it, the study found.

Florida requires that third-graders who score at the lowest level on the reading FCAT be retained unless they demonstrate proficiency through some other means, such as a high enough score on another standardized test or a portfolio that teachers and administrators deem sufficient. It also mandates that held-back students get extra help, including an additional 90 minutes of reading instruction each day.

Greene and Winters found that black and Hispanic third-graders are less likely to be promoted through those exemptions than white counterparts with similarly low scores, according to the study, which can be found in the current edition of the Economics of Education Review. Black students were 4 percent more likely to be held back; Hispanic students, 9 percent.

The researchers found that that kind of gap did not exist between low-income and more affluent students. In fact, students on free or reduced lunch were more likely to be promoted. So black and Hispanic students are "being held back because of something related to their race, independent of their academic achievement," Greene, who chairs the education reform department at the University of Arkansas, told the Gradebook. "That is worrisome."

Greene said it's unclear why. It could be racial bias on the part of teachers and administrators, he said. But it could also be that black and Hispanic parents are less likely to push teachers and administrators into finding some way for their kid to be promoted. Roughly half the exemptions are granted through a subjective review, Greene said.

But here's the twist: The retained students tend to quickly catch up and outperform those who were promoted through exemptions (according to both Greene and Winter's research and an OPPAGA study from 2006), so the racial bias in the policy has the unintended effect of helping held-back kids. Two years later, the average retained student was scoring 6 percentile points higher than his low-scoring counterpart who was promoted.

"Giving kids exemptions was doing them no favor," Greene said.

Ron Matus, State Education Reporter


[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:10am]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours