When Florida started retaining thousands upon thousands of third-graders in 2003, critics feared minority students would unfairly bear the brunt. In a way, they have, a new research study concludes.
But the study also says they're coming out the better for it.
Florida's policy requires that third-graders who score at the lowest level on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading be held back for another year — unless they can show through one of six "good cause exemptions" that they deserve to go on to fourth grade. The exemptions include passing another standardized test or compiling a portfolio that shows other proof they have mastered basic skills.
Researchers Jay Greene and Marcus Winters found black and Hispanic third-graders are less likely to be promoted through those exemptions than white peers with similarly low scores. The reasons are unclear.
But in a twist, they also found the retained students are soon scoring higher on the FCAT than those promoted through exemptions.
"Giving kids exemptions was doing them no favor," Greene said.
Greene and Winters' work, published in Economics of Education Review, is just the latest take on a Jeb Bush-era policy that has been controversial since the get-go. Supporters say ending "social promotion" is a way to help struggling students catch up before it's too late, and to raise expectations for all students. But critics say holding kids back only slaps them with a loser label and ensures their failure in the long run.
Last year, 11,718 third-graders were retained, down from nearly 28,000 in 2003, according to Department of Education figures.
Greene and Winters analyzed how the policy affected the first group of third-graders affected by it.
Black students were 4 percent more likely to be held back, they concluded. Hispanic students were 9 percent more likely. But no such gap existed between low-income and more affluent students.
Black and Hispanic students are "being held back because of something related to their race, independent of their academic achievement," said Greene, who chairs the education reform department at the University of Arkansas and has done research in Florida on vouchers and graduation rates. "That is worrisome."
Retention critics say they're not surprised. But retention supporters will cheer the study's other finding.
Florida law mandates that held-back students get extra help, including an additional 90 minutes of reading instruction each day. By 2005, the 2003 retainees were scoring about 6 percentile points higher than those who were promoted through exemptions, Greene and Winters found.
School officials around Tampa Bay weren't sure what to make of the report's findings.
Pam Moore, Pinellas' assistant superintendent for K-12 curriculum, said she was floored by the possibility of racial bias. But, she added, "I haven't seen, within our district data, anything to prove that."
Greene estimated half the exemptions are granted through a more subjective option like the portfolio. That could open the door for bias on the part of school officials, he said. Or it could be that black and Hispanic parents are less likely to push officials into finding some way to promote their kids.
In Hillsborough, teachers and administrators assemble portfolios for all third-graders at risk of retention. In Pinellas, portfolios are put together for all third- graders, period. In both districts, the portfolios consist of a series of assessments that students take during the school year.
The Pinellas assessments are uniform districtwide. And the testing company that helped craft them looked for things like racial bias in questions, Moore said.
The district also set passing scores so students either score high enough, or they don't. Parents sometimes try to intervene, but it doesn't do any good, said Oscar Robinson, principal of Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg.
It's unclear how widely portfolio contents vary from district to district, or whether some districts give teachers and principals more leeway to determine promotion.
Monty Neil, deputy director of FairTest, a national group critical of retention policies, said it's no surprise racial bias may have surfaced in Florida's policy. He also said too much shouldn't be made of the retained students' short-term progress.
Other studies have found those gains don't last, he said. He also noted the overwhelming body of evidence shows retained students are more likely to drop out.
"The value of this policy would be if, in the end, the kids are graduating from high school at a higher rate," he said.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.