Linda Fandel
The Governor's Special Assistant for Education

If a child can’t read in fourth grade

January 12, 2012

What’s worse? Retaining a child at the end of third grade who can’t read, and needs more time to learn the skills involved? Or promoting a child to fourth grade who is illiterate, and doomed to fall further and further behind in most subjects?

Ideally, no child ends up in either scenario because extra help with reading was provided long before. That’s the goal of the third-grade reading initiative that’s part of Governor Branstad’s and Lt. Governor Reynold’s education reform package. Starting in preschool, children who need additional assistance would get it, and would be continually assessed to make sure they are making progress.

But if child capable of learning to read is still struggling at the end of third grade, I’d argue that additional time in third grade carries more advantages than disadvantages. The biggest plus is the likelihood of being able to do fourth-grade work in fourth grade. That is what I’d want for my child.

Meanwhile, the question below was posed on the “Ask a Question” feature on the Iowa Department of Education website:

Question: While I agree with and support much of the Blueprint, I need to know where to find the specific research you consider when proposing 3rd grade retention? **Not 3rd grade literacy, but specially RETENTION? I’m wondering about the long-term effects on our economy and our social classes when the students who are retained begin to drop out of school, which research has shown is the case when students are retained. Dr. Douglas Reeves has plenty of resources citing the economic impact of school drop-outs.

My answer: Thank you for writing regarding the third-grade literacy proposal in Governor Branstad’s and Lt. Governor Reynolds’ education reform package.

Retention would be a last resort to be used only after a much more intensive effort to help children learn to read, starting in preschool.  It would also involve more outreach to parents for their assistance.

Florida has used this approach with great success, and today has significantly higher fourth-grade reading scores than Iowa on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (an average 225 vs. 221). This is the case despite Florida having a much higher share of students who start out as English language learners and a much higher share of low-income students compared to Iowa.

Retention is the stick that pushes everyone to really focus on reading, and Florida today holds back relatively few students.

No one wants to see a child held back, but promoting a child to fourth grade who is capable of learning to read, but who still is functionally illiterate is a set-up for failure. That child simply will not be able to keep up in other subjects.

You may want to read a recent Casey Foundation study on how third grade reading levels influence high school graduation: You will find a press release and the link to the study.

Here is the link to a  Rand study finding retained students did fine in school: Again, you will see a press release and then you will see the link to the study.

Thank you for your feedback, and please feel free to contact me with questions down the road.

Best regards,


Linda Fandel
Special assistant for education
Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad

Printed from the Linda Fandel website on October 09, 2015 at 3:46am.