Lawsuit revives an old debate: Should Florida's struggling readers be forced to repeat third grade?

Michelle Rhea is one of several parents who are suing the state and six school districts.
Michelle Rhea is one of several parents who are suing the state and six school districts.
Published Aug. 28, 2016

Michelle Rhea knew her daughter, Berlynn, was at risk to repeat third grade — not because the girl couldn't read at grade level, but because she planned to skip the state reading test.

To avoid holding her back, Rhea asked teachers at Berlynn's Orange County elementary school to develop a performance portfolio, as allowed in state law. But no one did, and this fall Berlynn found herself reassigned into third grade.

"Of course, I'm worried about retention — the stigma, the emotional strain on the child, the waste of valuable instruction time, the fact that the child will forever be so much older than everyone, the social pressure they will face having to tell their friends," said Rhea, the lead plaintiff in a new lawsuit challenging the Florida law that every year keeps thousands of third-graders from moving to fourth grade.

"It's devastating. Especially when it's not deserved."

Since 2003, Florida has pursued its philosophy that children must learn to read by the end of third grade. It implemented laws to stop promoting third-graders if they didn't pass a state reading test, and pushed the idea nationally.

Fifteen other states follow Florida's model, and state education officials say it has had its intended effect.

But the practice has come under heavy criticism this month from parents who have sued the state and six Florida school districts. They allege that holding third-graders back is "extremely detrimental" to their education and unfairly gives more weight to a one-day test than classroom performance throughout the year.

Outcomes 'mixed'

The case, under review by a Leon County judge, has renewed an old debate over a policy that is one of the key features of Florida's school accountability system.

"The extra year does serve as a benefit for those who are struggling in reading," Florida Deputy Education Commissioner Juan Copa testified in the lawsuit. He cited records from 2011 and 2012 comparing fourth-grade reading test scores of retained students against those of children who got into fourth grade through exemptions in the law.

Others say any benefit is far outweighed by the negative impact on kids.

"The overwhelming majority of the research concludes that the practice does not help most students and ends up harming many," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest. "Pretty much the only remaining proponents are advocates of 'faith-based' policies."

Lorrie Shepard, dean emerita of the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said the academic outcomes from retention are "mixed," and any gains are short-lived.

"Unambiguously, retention increases the chances of dropping out of high school," Shepard added.

Older students are more likely to leave school, she said, and being removed from your peer group is stigmatizing. Meanwhile, the cost to keep children in school an extra year mounts.

Across all grade levels, Florida did not promote 107,378 students in 2013.

"It's an incredibly crude fix," Shepard said. "Many kids that are behind … are more than a grade behind, and they're different amounts behind. Cycling them through again in no way individualizes or tends to the special help they need."

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Almost any other intervention is better, she added, "but this is bureaucratically easier."

Shane Jimerson, a professor of school psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggested the debate must move beyond retention versus social promotion.

"Research illustrates that those students who need the most help experience the most harmful deleterious outcomes following grade retention," he said.

Efforts must focus on actions most likely to meet each student's circumstances, he said.

Earlier identification

Jimerson, Shepard and others agreed that the system should reach into the earliest years of education, so by the end of third grade more children can "read to learn," as the state desires.

Even researchers with more favorable views on retention have reservations.

Martin West, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, said his findings showed Florida children who were retained learned "considerably more" in the year following retention than if they would have been promoted.

"And they're less likely to be retained in future grades," he said.

But he stressed that Florida's effort "is not a clear success story."

Students' academic gains diminish over time, he wrote in a recent paper on the topic. And the program depends on providing proper instruction by top teachers, as the law anticipates.

Retention policies like Florida's "are no substitute for the development of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the number of struggling readers," West wrote.

Florida school districts are not keen on holding children back, as evidenced by recent statistics. In 2013, districts kept 15,628 third-graders from moving on, a larger number than any other grade level.

In 2015, when the Legislature gave districts more flexibility on retention decisions, schools held back 9,458 third-graders — a 40 percent decrease.

Rhea said she hoped her lawsuit would move the state to consider the more nuanced approach that many experts recommend.

She said she would support changes that help teachers identify and help struggling readers much earlier. The current tests don't do that, she said. "They simply stamp a fail or pass. This doesn't tell anyone anything."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or Follow @jeffsolochek.