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Study: Repeating 3rd Grade Could Help Struggling English-Learners

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Learning to read is widely considered the bridge to later academic success. In hopes of ensuring that success, more than a dozen states, including Florida, require students to pass a reading test to advance to the 4th grade.

While studies have questioned the effectiveness of retaining students to reach that goal, a pair of researchers has found that immigrant English-language learners in the Sunshine State benefitted from the extra year of school and exposure to the language.

Led by David Figlio, an education economist and the dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, and Umut Ozek, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, a study of 40,000 English-language learners in Florida found that students who repeated 3rd grade learned English faster and took more advanced classes in middle and high school than peers who moved on to 4th grade, but also struggled to learn the language.

Figlio and Ozek published the research in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, "An Extra Year to Learn English? Early Grade Retention and the Human Capital Development of English Learners," Their findings may add fuel to the national debate over so-called "literacy laws" that recommend holding back students at 3rd grade if they fail to achieve a targeted score on reading tests.

There's also the issue of whether students, English-learner or not, are still developing reading skills as 8- and 9-year-olds. Education Week's Curriculum Matters blog has examined policies in states such as Michigan, New Mexico, and North Carolina, where students with the retention label are not always held back in 3rd grade. Even in Florida, one of the states to first adopt a "literacy law," lawmakers have weighed getting rid of the policy.

Retained ELLs Got More Reading Instruction; Summer School

Dating back to 2002, the year that the state law that requires all 3rd-grade students to pass a reading test took effect, Ozek and Figlio reviewed records of English-learners in a dozen Florida school districts. Those who didn't pass the reading test repeated 3rd grade with extra support, including extended blocks of daily reading instruction and summer school classes.

The researchers compared the academic trajectories of English-learners who fell just below the score threshold to pass, and were retained, with those of English-learners who scored just high  enough to pass and move on to 4th grade.

When Figlio and Ozek compared test scores of the students when they reach the same grade level, they found that the ELLs who were held back in 3rd grade consistently outperformed their peers on state tests and were less likely to take remedial English courses in middle school. The students who repeated 3rd grade were also more likely to enroll in middle school honors courses and high school classes that could earn them college credit.

While retaining students could be expensive for districts that had to cover the costs of an extra year of school, and stigmatizing for students, the researchers argue that those potential risks are worth it if schools boost the graduation prospects of more English-learners and spend less on remedial education classes down the line.

Helping more ELLs earn diplomas could help narrow a yawning gap between the students and their native English-speaking peers. Nationally, the graduation rate for English-learner students is about 67 percent; that's about 18 percentage points less than the overall high school graduation rate.

The researchers did find that immigrants benefited more than U.S.-born English-learners from the extra year to catch up. Students who attended more-affluent elementary schools and had higher than average 3rd-grade math scores were also more likely to benefit from retention.

Figlio and Ozek have teamed up on English-learner research before. A 2017 study from the pair found that the arrival of refugee students did not have a negative effect on the behavior or academic achievement of their schoolmates. In examining what happened in 100 Florida schools that enrolled refugee students after the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the team found no changes in test scores of disciplinary problems, and no evidence that the students' arrival led incumbent families to depart the schools in large numbers.

Related Reading

Should Third Grade Be the Pivot Point for Early Reading?

Refugee Students Don't Negatively Affect the Education of Peers, Study Finds

Prior Education Determines How Refugee ELLs Adjust to U.S. Schools

Building ELLs' Early Literacy is Crucial

States Target Early Years to Reach 3rd Grade Reading Goals

Photo Credit: Students Jade Cruz, center, and Aylin Gamino use tokens to balance addition equations during a lesson-study session at Boulder Ridge Elementary in Menifee, Calif.

--Photos by Sarah D. Sparks/Education Week
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