The Governor's Special Assistant for Education

Linda Fandel

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

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10 Responses to "If a child can’t read in fourth grade"

  1. It’s important to recognize a few things here:

    1. There is no ‘other side’ when it comes to the retention research. If you dig into it all, you’ll see that it’s all very consistent and negative. You may see some short-term academic benefits (e.g., if you retain kids in 3rd grade, you may see better 4th grade – 7th grade test scores). You also may not – many studies see those short-term gains ending quickly or not materializing at all. And, unanimously, the research that looks at longer-term results shows incredibly higher dropout rates, lower self-concept, diminished life success as adults, etc.

    2. The ‘current’ research is consistent with the older research. If you actually read the research being touted here, it all focuses on short-term gains (e.g., the Casey Foundation and RAND studies mentioned here). There is nothing yet to disprove all of the older research, nor would we expect it to since the current flavor of grade retention isn’t any different than past forms that have been tried elsewhere. We don’t all of a sudden have some miraculous way of doing grade retention that works – we’re doing the same thing others have in the past. It’s also worth noting that the trotting out of a couple of recent studies that show short-term gains – and then saying “Well, we don’t know what the long-term effects will be” – is insufficient given the overwhelming preponderance of LOTS of other research (i.e., research that wasn’t trotted out) that already shows us what the long-term effects will be.

    This is not an ideological issue (or at least it shouldn’t be). It’s a question of what the data show us, which are consistent and unilaterally negative impacts on children. Sure, ‘social promotion’ of a struggling reader is not a desirable policy or educational choice. It goes against our intuition and our gut hunches about how we think the world works. But the alternative, grade retention, unfortunately appears to be even worse. That’s counterintuitive but, whether we like it or not, that’s what the data and the research tell us. I don’t think we Iowa citizens, educators, or policymakers should be advocating for research-based approaches (when possible) and then ignoring the vast body of research when it happens to disagree with our preconceived notions.

  2. Please also note that nowhere in the Casey Foundation report cited here does it advocate for grade retention. Instead, after noting that struggling readers do poorly later in life, it advocates for the following:

    (1) aligned curriculum, standards, and assessment from PreK through third grade;
    (2) consistent instructional approaches and learning environments;
    (3) availability of PreK for all children ages 3 and 4, as well as full-day kindergarten for older children;
    (4) classroom teachers who possess at least a bachelor’s degree and are certified to teach grades PreK-3rd;
    (5) small class sizes; and
    (6) partnership between the school and families.

    Linda, you say here that “I’d argue that additional time in third grade carries more advantages than disadvantages.” But then you ignore the very research that you cite plus all the other research that disproves your gut hunch. We shouldn’t be making state policy based on whatever you think your intuition is. Whenever possible we should instead be making it based on actual, real data and research. We have those data and research studies for 3rd grade retention. Until you can show a vast body of evidence that supports grade retention sufficient to counter the vast body of evidence against it, this part of the legislation should be dropped.

    When you were a news reporter instead of a DE employee, you used to cast a critical and skeptical eye on educational and political practices. Why aren’t you doing the same thing now when it comes to 3rd grade retention? There isn’t any solid research to support this proposal – and a multitude of research against it – and yet you favor it anyway. That doesn’t make any sense to me…

    • Dr. McLeod,
      Iowa’s third-grade reading proposal is not based on intuiton. It’s based on Florida’s successful policy. Iowa fourth-graders used to be top performers in reading, but now trail Florida’s on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Florida fourth-graders’ average score was 225, up 19 points since the late 1990s. Iowa fourth-graders’ average score was 221, up one point over the same period. Just one point. We now rank 29th.
      Florida’s success is a result of intensive intervention and assessment starting in kindergarten. But Florida also recognizes that if a child is essentially illiterate at the end of third grade, he or she will struggle in fourth grade with math and other subjects. Who wants to put a child in that position if another year in third grade – with a different reading program – teaches them to read?
      The Casey Foundation study, “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” says, “One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not
      graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for
      proficient readers.”
      Where is the research showing students who can’t read but are promoted to fourth grade anyway come out ahead of third-graders who are held back so they learn to read before they are expected to read to learn?
      Linda Fandel

      • Ms. Fandel,

        We’re to believe that Iowa needs a third grade policy which threatens children with humiliation and shames them simply because one state supposedly raised their NAEP reading scores by a few points? This is the entire basis for threatening children with failure if they don’t learn to read by some arbitrary date in May each year?

        Numerous case studies and research clearly demonstrate that Florida test score data is flawed and was manipulated in order to show “improvement.”

        Basing a life-changing decision for a child on bogus test data is unprofessional, irresponsible, and unethical.

        When did our state ranking on some arbitrary standardized test become the driver and decision maker for educational policies affecting 8 year old children? When did NAEP scores become more important and more valued than the emotional well being of the children of Iowa?

        The Casey Foundation study does NOT state that third grade retention worked to teach students to read. It clearly says that other interventions; research-based interventions, peer reviewed interventions, and best-practice interventions, are the things that help children and teach them to read.

        Decades of experience and a boatload of research show without a doubt that grade retention is harmful to children, does not work to teach them to read, and causes more damage to a struggling child’s view of themselves than anything else. Yet, you continue to push grade retention because Florida did it?

        Please note too, that you are advocating Iowa copy a grade retention policy in a state where high school graduation rates are the 44th worst in the United States. ACT scores in Florida are also some of the worst in the nation.

        Intensive intervention, early and often, helps children and keeps their self-esteem intact. We can promote children to fourth grade, avoid public humiliation, AND teach them to read at the same time. If a reading program will teach a child to read while they are in third grade for the second year, then that same reading program will teach that child to read while they are in fourth grade as well.

        Children do not have to be held back, flunked, or retained in order to be taught to read.

      • Linda,

        Please call me Scott (as you used to). I’m not that formal…

        1. You just reiterated what I said above. Retention policies may see short-term gains (e.g., the 4th grade scores you cited again from Florida) but those fade out in later grades. Also, dropout rates increase and student self-concept takes an incredible hit (as does future life success). So you’ve essentially echoed what the research says by failing to rebut it.

        2. The wide and deep body of peer-reviewed research unequivocally states that promoting a student to 4th grade despite reading difficulties is better than retaining that studentin 3rd grade. Your lack of knowledge of – and disregard for – this scholarly research is ALARMING. You’re going off one short-term study instead of the extensive base of research that both confirms what you’re saying and then shows why the long-term impacts are much, much worse the further out one looks.

        3. You say that “Florida’s success is a result of intensive intervention and assessment starting in kindergarten.” Fine. Do that, dump the stupid retention idea that is contradicted by every retention study ever done, and everyone will be fine. Bumping up Iowa’s 4th grade scores by artificial means for a short period of time so that we can feel better about our rankings compared to other states – at the expense of longer-term life success of our children – makes no sense whatsoever.

      • Again, I ask you for your extensive body of peer-reviewed research that justifies this proposed policy. I believe you have a moral obligation to show this – or dump the proposal – since there is an incredible wealth of peer-reviewed research against it.

        This is not an area for which we have no data or research. Please put the remainder of your confirmatory data and research on the table so that Iowa citizens and policymakers can make an informed decision.

  3. It appears we are stuck in the old paradigm in which it is implicitly assumed that only one of two solutions exist to the “problem” of 8 year olds not reading. Either retain them or socially promote them. Perhaps the real issue is that the system of education we have, based on the assumption that the best way to organize children for learning is to batch them according to age and then hold time as the constant, is where the real problem lies. It is the system of relentlessly moving them through a system based upon the faulty assumption that they should all learn at the same pace and that they all step into kindergarten at the same place in their learning that is the problem. The system is designed to either promote kids no matter their learning gaps and hope that the next assembly line worker can “fix it” or send them back for rework. Both are feckless solutions.

    Even more problematic is the old notion of thinking that “carrots and sticks” is what motivates people. Old ideas about power, control and force are proving more and more impotent every day. So are we to truly believe that an 8 year old will “buck up” when they are told that they can’t be a 4th grader unless they overcome their reading deficiencies by June of their 8th year? Such a paradigm of thought implicitly assumes that people are “holding back” and not taking things seriously and need a good threat to get them to come around. Common sense and brain research shows that “reading to learn” occurs across a spectrum of roughly 6 to 10 years of age. Einstein didn’t learn to read by age 9 and under this system we would be hitting him with a stick, convinced that the outcomes of his life are being seriously compromised. As adults, how do we respond with “do this or else” approaches? Does it improve our motivation, our passion to do good work, our self-efficacy?

    A truly competency-based system tied to engaging student’s passions and interests makes grades, grading, social promotion, and retention irrelevant. Until we expose and challenge the assumptions of a dead model for education we are relegated to non-solutions all over again. Either/or thinking is destroying our ability to design new learning systems for a new age.

  4. Trace, you’re absolutely correct and I appreciate you highlighting the deficit thinking of both Linda and myself. Either we’re moving toward a competency-based education scheme – in which students have as much or as little time as they need – or we’re not. In a true competency-based learning environment, a student would never have to worry about arbitrary, factory-origin time deadlines such as age or grade levels. So the Governor and DE need to reconcile their own legislative proposal – are they about grade levels or CBE? – and I need to change my own thinking and language a bit too.

  5. Linda, I completely support the notion that students who do not display sufficient reading skills by 3rd grade have a high likelihood of struggling in many areas of their life during and beyond school. I’m excited that as a state, we have decided to shine a bright light on this issue. Furthermore, I am not a supporter of “social promotion.” By social promotion, I mean allowing students to move to the next grade level because it is the next stop in the school process, who are missing critically important skills that are needed to be successful at that next stop. It is my hope that another one of the state’s proposals, competency-based education, will help us reshape what those next steps in the school process are for our students. In that regard, I believe the current system’s structures that encourage moving students through the levels of school is flawed, especially for struggling learners.

    With that said, I couldn’t be more opposed to the recommendation to retain 3rd graders who don’t demonstrate sufficient reading skills. Scott McCloud and Katie Kauffman, to date, have provided both solid rationale and links to resources to refute both the practice of grade retention and your subsequently-provided evidence that grade retention, as currently proposed, is appropriate policy. It is my experience that disagreements like these are sometimes due to the parties not always talking about the same thing. Maybe that is what is happening here.

    So this is what I’m curious about, in the spirit of trying to have clear communication of ideas, beliefs, and evidence in this debate. What criteria are you (and others whom you’ve worked with to develop and promote the idea of grade retention as policy) using to select evidence for your argument? I believe I should have to answer this question as well, so let me start.

    When determining what is evidence-based practice and what is not, I believe that the issue is more of a continuum than a yes/no proposition. That is, any particular practice could have absolutely no evidence for having a positive impact on student learning all the way to virtually undeniable evidence, and anywhere in between. If we can get behind this notion (which I do), then the next step for me is to have some criteria for determining where on that continuum the available evidence would suggest that practice should be. Some pretty smart people have developed these sort of criteria. Some examples include:

    The Wing Institute:

    The What Works Clearinghouse:

    Best Evidence Encyclopedia:

    There are many other organizations and evidence-review processes that could be applied to the 3rd grade retention issue. The reality is that practices such as grade retention are rarely if ever examined using such frameworks, even by researchers themselves. As such, I tend to rest my evidence arguments on a foundation of a subset of practices that typically fall under more stringent frameworks:

    -research gathered and analyzed by professional researchers and evaluators with a history of quality work
    -replication of findings from previous research
    -lack of replicated, contradictory evidence
    -findings indicate both a statistical and practical positive impact for students

    Applying either the more-or less-stringent criteria I laid out above, grade retention continues to, at best, have a neutral long-term impact on student outcomes. At worst, retained students tend to see long-team decreases in their learning and negative social-emotional outcomes. In other words, the evidence for grade retention, in my opinion, falls much closer to the “no evidence at all” end of the evidence continuum that that “almost undeniable” end by a fair margin. Here is a resource I think do a nice job summarizing these phenomena:

    Here is another resource that provides evidence-based alternatives to grade retention:

    Do I think my one or two resources are a sufficient argument against the proposal to retain 3rd graders in Iowa that have insufficient reading skills? No, I do not. No more than your two resources provide ample evidence to support 3rd grade retention of these students. The difference, in my opinion, is that the resources I’ve provided here are representative of the larger body of evidence, applying a reasonable approach to defining adequate evidence.

    With that said Linda, please, provide the evidence criteria/approach used by those who have developed the 3rd grade retention policy recommendation. I love being proven wrong about what’s good for students. That way, I learn how to be a better, more responsible educator. I think our students deserve that. I believe that we are better together, so let’s find a way to promote reading skills for all of our students that is based on a solid evidential foundation. What say you?

  6. Matthew Ladner and the Foundation for Excellence in Education are behind this 3rd grade retention push. Unfortunately, “rigorous review has found that Ladner’s claims are not supported by the evidence. Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: Learning from Florida’s Reforms, was reviewed … by Columbia University Professor Madhabi Chatterji, who identified and explained serious flaws. The flaws were so great that the National Education Policy Center subsequently awarded the Heritage Foundation a ‘Bunkum Award’ earlier this year.”

    More here:

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