Fourth grade is when young people stop learning to read and start reading to learn, says Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Even so, because less attention is placed on developing reading skills past the third grade, Winters said, students who have not mastered the skill by then struggle to keep up and fall further behind each year.
To address that issue, Ohio and North Carolina passed legislation in the past month requiring third-graders to pass a reading test before advancing to fourth grade. They join four other states — Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma and Florida — with similar policies, said Jaryn Emhof of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Emhof said more states, including Mississippi and New Mexico, are considering similar laws.
The policy has critics, including psychologist Sylvia Rimm, who says she believes third grade is too late to hold students back. She says if a problem is noticed, a child should should be held back earlier, when they are less likely to experience emotional pain for repeating a year.
“If they are held back and are not carefully guided through the process, they could feel like dummies and think there is no use in trying,” said Rimm, author of the book Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades.
Winters has studied the performance of students who just barely passed the test and those who just barely didn’t in Florida, the first state to require test-based promotion in 2002. In the short and long term, the students held back did better academically than those who were moved ahead, said Winter, who published his findings in April.
Florida’s policy stipulates that third-grade students must score at or above Level 2, the second lowest of five levels, on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to be promoted. Those who demonstrate the required reading level through a portfolio can be granted an exemption. Some districts allow students to be reassessed after a summer reading camp, said Pam Stewart, chancellor of the Florida Department of Education’s Division of Public Affairs.
Karen Tegeler, a Des Moines parent, said her son, a fifth-grader with a visual impairment, would have been retained under the policy. She said that would not have been good for him socially or academically. “Holding a kid back because they struggle in one area, but maybe excel in others … that doesn’t seem right.” she said.