Holding students back in earliest grades a challenge due to Florida law

A third-grader draws on her iPad during art class at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg in January. It was part of a traveling arts lab.
A third-grader draws on her iPad during art class at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg in January. It was part of a traveling arts lab.
Published Oct. 20, 2014

At Maximo Elementary, "where learning is our business," nearly half of kindergarten students show up unprepared for school. It's day one and they're already behind.

Some catch up and some don't. But last year no one got held back before third grade.

At some of the lowest-performing schools in Pinellas County, where only a handful of students have passed the FCAT in later grades, many of the youngest children weren't retained last year — despite research that indicates early intervention is best.

Maximo, an F school in St. Petersburg, didn't hold back a single student last year in kindergarten, first grade or second grade.

Similarly low numbers were seen at three other F elementary schools in St. Petersburg. Campbell Park Elementary retained one student in the lowest grades, while Lakewood and Melrose elementaries held back five and six, respectively.

The reason for the small numbers might have less to do with children's abilities and more to do with fear of what could happen next. Students who get held back in kindergarten could be hit again in third grade, the result of a long-standing Florida law that prevents students from moving to fourth grade if they score at the lowest level on the state reading test.

"I believe the fear is real," said Bill Corbett, deputy superintendent for the Pinellas County School District. The same research that shows students can benefit from early retention and intervention also says that children who repeat multiple grades are at a higher risk of dropping out.

The district used to retain more students in the younger grades, he said. But "then some of those same kids were getting retained in third grade."

Records show Pinellas recently has taken an aggressive stance against early retentions. Fewer than 500 students were held back last school year in kindergarten, first grade and second grade, while 700 third-graders were retained.

That's a reverse from 2012-13, when more of the youngest students were retained.

In Hillsborough County, meanwhile, more students were held back in kindergarten through second grade than in third grade in each of the past two years.

Jeff Eakins, the Hillsborough County School District's deputy superintendent, said the law affects how school officials think about retention and promotion in kindergarten, first grade and second grade.

"It does create kind of a dilemma when you know you have that hard checkpoint at third grade," he said. "It's probably something that plays in the mind of school districts across the state."

Mary Jane Tappen, a vice chancellor with the state Department of Education, said it would be "unfortunate" if districts responded to the law by not retaining children when they need it in the early grades.

That attitude could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, she said. "If they're promoted and they're not ready, they probably will get retained in third grade."

Other school districts actually have seen an increase in retentions in kindergarten, first grade and second grade because they're trying to reach struggling students sooner, Tappen said.

Also, blanket promotions can tie the hands of teachers.

Pauline Kerr, then a first-grade teacher at Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater, spoke out against the practice earlier this year at a School Board meeting. She said she had agonized about whether to retain students, spoke to their parents and finally, with a "heavy heart," submitted the names. Despite that, all of the students were promoted.

The C-rated school didn't retain a single child outside of third grade last year.

Some students "missed a half a year of school," Kerr said. Others were affected by family problems. Some needed more time to grasp basic concepts.

"What we do in the primary grades sets the tone for the rest of these students' academic lives," she said.

Florida instituted its third-grade retention policy in 2002, part of efforts by former Gov. Jeb Bush to improve literacy and put an end to "social promotion," or advancing students based mostly on their age. Bush has touted the law nationally, and many states followed Florida's lead.

Cari Miller, a state policy director for Bush's nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said learning to read in the early grades is the "gateway to lifelong learning."

"If kids do not enter fourth grade ready to read to learn, challenges build and opportunities become limited," she said.

Several studies of the law's effects seem to bolster Bush's cause. A 2007 study out of the University of Arkansas found that retained third-graders saw more gains than their socially promoted peers, especially after two years.

Last year, researchers at Harvard University found that third-graders retained in Florida because of the policy were less likely to repeat a grade in later years and showed significant short-term gains in reading and math. The gains faded, however, after five years.

Critics of the law say it's difficult to know if retention was the key to improvement since those students also had intensive reading instruction.

Despite what has been a national trend toward retaining students, the practice is controversial. Opponents say the children most often held back are boys, minorities and low-income students.

School systems in Florida always have had some flexibility to promote third-graders who fail the reading test. Students can move to fourth grade with a "good cause" exemption, in which they show a portfolio of work or earn a proficient score on another test.

State legislators also diluted the law last year, mandating that students can no longer be retained twice in third grade.

Pam Moore, associate superintendent of teaching and learning in Pinellas, said "everyone would tell you that early intervention is best." But she said not all children are behind in every area. A student could be proficient in everything but math or reading.

"We want to fill in those gaps without the stigma of being retained," she said.

Social effects for children retained at a younger age tend to be less severe than for older students, said Eakins, the Hillsborough deputy superintendent. Dating and making friends — everyday experiences — can be harder for a student who's older than his classmates. Multiple retentions only exacerbate social problems.

"You might have students 15 years of age in middle schools," he said.

In Pinellas, principals make the final call about a student's first retention; a second retention is reviewed by an administrator at district headquarters. That can result in uneven numbers from school to school.

Northwest Elementary, a C school in St. Petersburg, retained 21 first-graders last year, but only eight third-graders. Maximo Elementary, in contrast, held back 30 third-graders and no students in the earlier grades.

School districts also have made efforts to give students extra resources to catch up outside of the school day and year. Pinellas has a six-week summer school program that targets struggling students. Hillsborough promotes some students in the fall if they make enough progress over the summer, Eakins said.

But, he said, "Sometimes the best placement for a student in kindergarten might be kindergarten again."

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at Follow @Fitz_ly.