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3rd Grade Reading Retention: A Closer Look at North Carolina's Literacy Law

3rdgradereading-c1.jpgStudies showing that children who read below grade level by 3rd grade continue to struggle in school long afterwards have engendered a patchwork of literacy laws across the country. Many of those require that students who perform poorly on a 3rd grade reading assessment be retained. 

(See the above map, last updated in May.)

North Carolina, which is in the third year of such a law, recently released its reading retention numbers for 2014-15. Nearly 14 percent of 3rd graders—or about 1 in 7were "retained" under the regulations for not meeting reading proficiency standards. That's about a 1 percent increase from 2013-14.

In about a dozen districts, more than 20 percent of students were retained. For instance, in the Winston-Salem Forsyth County schools, retention rates were at 21 percent, up from 15 percent a year prior.

The raw numbers are quite scary. But a closer look exemplifies just how complicated and cloudy these kinds of reading-retention laws can be. 

The Meaning of 'Retained'

First and foremost, in looking at the North Carolina data it's important to understand that students with the retention label are not necessarily actually held back in 3rd grade. The law, which has separate provisions for English-learners and students with disabilities, says that students who are deemed not-proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade can:

  1. Be retained in a 3rd grade accelerated class with supports;
  2. Be placed in a a 3rd/4th grade transitional class, in which they learn 4th grade standards with remediation; or
  3. Be placed in a 4th grade accelerated class with remediation.

The majority of North Carolina students with the retention label actually went on to 4th grade classes, Carolyn Guthrie, the director of K-3 literacy at the education department, explained in an interview. The department does not have exact numbers, she said, but "for a child to be retained in 3rd grade they would have to be having multiple problems, not just in reading but in math and with social emotional [skills]."

Students also have a chance this November to get the reading-retention label removed. Even if they do, Guthrie said, the district will continue to provide supports all year for the student.

Deanne Meadows, the chief academic officer for Brunswick County Schools, said holding back a 3rd grader is a "last resort." 

Interestingly, the 4th grade reading scores went up about 2 percent across the state between year 1 and 2 of the law, Guthrie said, which was the highest jump in grades 3-8. She attributes that to the additional supports many of the 4th graders were receiving because they were labeled as retained.

Changes in Proficiency Standards and Tests

When comparing the year-over-year results in North Carolina, it's also critical to understand that the proficiency measures have changed.

In 2013-14, districts could use locally developed assessments to measure literacy, and they could set their own benchmarks for proficiency. But starting last school year, districts had to use tests and cutscores set by the state. 

In Brunswick, the retention rates went from about 7 percent to about 21 percent over the year. But the district was previously using its own tests.

"Unfortunately, of course, when you have locally developed tests, they ... aren't necessarily vetted for reliability and validity as well as national or state tests," said Meadows, the CAO there. "There were some students we probably waived that shouldn't have been waived last year because of us not having a good enough understanding of the law."

Meadows also noted that year-over-year results are problematic because they compare two different cohorts of 3rd graders.

And while the law did cause some fear among parents when it first went into place, Meadows said that's mostly died down. "Part of the reason we don't hear a lot of complaints is that [retained students] are not really being placed back in 3rd grade classes," she said. 

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