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Third Grade A Pivotal Time In Students' Lives


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The age of eight or nine, when kids complete third grade, represents a key turning point. Up until then, children are learning to read. Afterwards, they read to learn. Many educators believe that kids who can't read should be held back, and several states use standardized tests. Kids who don't pass are automatically held back, or retained.

Critics say such a policy is counterproductive and mean-spirited. Both sides cite statistics in support. But in most places, these decisions are not automatic, and in the coming weeks, teachers and parents will face the tough decision to hold back kids who struggle with reading or not.

If you're a teacher or a parent making that decision, if you were held back, tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the White House dinner that changed history: Deborah Davis on Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and guest of honor. But first, third grade and reading and retention. And let's see if we can begin with a caller. Let's begin with Tina, Tina on the line with us from Lansing, Michigan.


CONAN: Hi, Tina.

TINA: You know, I, like I briefly told you, my daughter really struggled with her reading, and I had felt that maybe she needed to be held back in third grade, but the school really fought me on it. When she got into fourth grade, it was very evident she was not ready. She struggled with her grades. It affected her self-esteem.

And coming into the end of her fourth grade, I put my foot down, and I said she's not going forward. I held her back in fourth grade. As a result of that, her reading has greatly improved. Her grade level has come up almost to A's, nothing but A's and B's. It's improved her own self-esteem and her own self-worth.

And so I don't see where - I mean, I know some of the kids do pick on her, but we sat down and talked about it so that she knew what we were doing, why were doing it, and she was on board with it, and it was the best decision I ever made for the future of my daughter.

CONAN: But a difficult decision, nonetheless.

TINA: It was difficult and - you know, because there's a lot that goes into, you know, holding them back because the kids that she's been going to school with are now moving on without her. And she's now in with the younger children. But bottom line is you've got to do what's going to be best for her, academically.

And she would have continued to struggle if we had allowed her just to go on. And I couldn't see doing that because how it was affecting not only her overall grades, but her self-esteem.

CONAN: And this was a decision, obviously, you reached after talking to her teachers and the school. Do you think that such decisions should be made automatically?

TINA: I don't think maybe necessarily automatically. I think that the parent should be brought in, and it should be discussed with the parent and given the pros and cons, and then the school and the parent together make a decision.

CONAN: All right, Tina. I'm glad it worked out in your case.

TINA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Joining us now is Tim Taylor, who's the president of Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders that work to change Colorado's education system. His organization supported the Colorado READ Act, which recently passed in the Colorado legislature. He joins us from member station KUVO in Denver. Nice to have you with us today.

TIM TAYLOR: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you worked for legislation in Colorado that would have passed, had automatic retention if kids failed the standardized reading test. They would have been held back automatically. Why were you in favor of that?

TAYLOR: The legislation here is a little bit different. We did model it off of some other legislation around the country, where there is an automatic bar, or automatic line in the sand that kids have to pass.

Here in Colorado, what we want to do is we want to make sure that kids are identified early, that we give them all the supports we possibly can, and that retention is considered an option for these kids if they don't have the skills to move forward.

If you're unable to read coming out of the third grade, and in fourth grade, we no longer teach reading in U.S. public schools, the kids can't read a math word problem. They can't read instructions on a science experiment, the teachers' notes on a white board. Their odds of success are so low at that point.

We know that 90 percent of high school dropouts did not read on the third-grade level, and it's one of the strongest predictors of high school graduation success. So this was something that we looked at, and we said: If the pipeline is broken, and we're not getting kids to and through and prepared for college, how do we back this up, and where are the pitfalls and the areas that we can take a look at?

CONAN: As I understand, the legislation in Colorado, again, it does not provide for automatically holding a kid back who fails this test, and also provides additional funds for the schools to work with those kids who are struggling with their reading.

TAYLOR: That's correct. There was $21 million that was put into this piece of legislation that is for support, to give the kids every chance they can. What the legislation does require is that there's a conversation between the parent, the teacher and the principal to let folks know, let these parents know that their kid is behind, and they're at risk of falling further behind because of the child's reading skills.

In kindergarten, first and second grade, the parent has final say to overrule that recommendation that the child be considered for retention. By third grade, this final decision comes down to the superintendent of the school district. They have to sign on to say that this child, they believe, has the skills necessary to go on and succeed.

And what's so important here is there are 34 percent of kids - according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress - around the country who score below basic. This is functionally illiterate, unable to read "The Cat in the Hat" at the end of third grade. And these kids moving forward into the fourth grade, that 34 percent starts to impact the other percentage of kids in the classroom.

So by fifth, sixth grade, you've got 100 percent of the student body being impacted because the teacher has to change curriculum to address a number of significance, the 34 percent of these kids who are coming through the system unable to read.

CONAN: Joining us now from member KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona is David Berliner, Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University and an educational psychologist. Good of you to be with us today.


CONAN: And do you agree that this third grade juncture is absolutely critical?

BERLINER: Well, I think it's critical, but I think the response of Colorado - while remarkably responsible because they've read the literature - is also a little misguided. Leaving kids back, we know from research, is - it sometimes improves achievement temporarily, for a small number of the repeaters, but over time, grade repeaters fall further and further behind other low achievers who have been promoted.

And the repeaters also drop out more frequently. That's really not controversial, and I think Colorado knows this and has passed sensible legislation, in a way. But they don't know which kids will profit from being left behind - none of us do - and it's hard to make public policy based on exceptions.

Some kids are helped, I don't doubt that. But only between 10 and 25 percent of smokers get lung cancer. The vast majority of smokers do not get lung cancer. Does that mean we should rescind the policy that makes it mandatory to warn people that smoking's a bad choice? Of course not.

Just because some kids are helped by retention in grades doesn't mean it's good policy. That's the reasoning of illogic here. You make policy based on good odds, and the odds are that retention in grade is bad for the kids who are retained. It's bad socially, emotionally, and they don't seem to catch up. And they drop out at higher rates.

CONAN: I understand the - what you're saying socially and emotionally, everybody has experience of - we've all been to school and understand the trauma involved in being held back. Nevertheless, if they can't read at a third-grade level, they've gone into fourth grade, where they no longer teach reading, how are they ever going to catch up?

BERLINER: Well, we all agree that neither retention nor promotion is beneficial to struggling students or their school if it's not accompanied by effective, programmatic interventions. And those usually mean extending learning time. You need opportunities for children to get after-school tutoring on weekends and in the summer. They need to be in safe and supervised environments.

Programs must offer homework assistance, intensive tutoring in basic skills, counseling and enrichment. Waiting till you make a decision to leave them back is a little late. Does Colorado have preschool and kindergarten mandatory for poor kids? Does it have tutoring for first and second-graders whose teachers say they need it? Does it have summer programs for these struggling kids, or have those funds been cut?

Has Colorado cut or added librarians to school to help children with reading? Because librarians play a big role in this. Does Colorado have smaller classes in first and second grade so as to give struggling students more chances to be served individually by teachers?

Those are also ways to cut that number of struggling students down dramatically.

CONAN: Tim Taylor, you're not a spokesperson for the Colorado Public Schools. You're an advocate. But can you help us answer some of those questions that David Berliner posed?

TAYLOR: Well, I mean, many of those things are very important, and we believe that the policy in Colorado takes a look at the entire spectrum of what's going on in literacy in Colorado. The first and most important thing is early identification of these kids. And we know, in Colorado, we're getting that right most of the time.

The Department of Education is on top of it, and we're getting - about 90 percent of the research is showing us that we've got the right kids. We know who they are. And the second thing is to intervene as early as possibly can - kindergarten, first, second - and give those kids every opportunity you can. That's where this bill has injected $21 million worth of supports to make sure that the kids get this.

And as an option of last resort, if the kids are not literate by the end of the third grade, we have got to stop lying to them and putting them into fourth grade, where they don't have the skills to succeed. One of the things that this bill does in Colorado is changes the culture around literacy. It makes it one of the most important things that can happen in a child's life by the time they get to the end of third grade.

And that is really at the core of what our bill wanted to and what we succeeded in doing, and that is because we've had flat literacy rates in the United States for the past decade. It is time to act. We are failing these kids at an alarming rate.

CONAN: Let's get Jerry on the line, Jerry with us from Jamesville in Wisconsin.

JERRY: Yeah, hi. I just wanted to say that, like, that woman was talking about your...

CONAN: That her - she made the decision to hold her child back, and...

JERRY: Yeah, and that the child was - her self-esteem, that's the word I was looking for. And it was just the opposite with me. I was in third grade, and I was held back, and my self-esteem went down after I was held back. All the other students and kids of my age went forward, and I felt belittled and small. And I was passing my grades at that time with C's and B's. I wasn't an all-A student, but I was passing.

And in the tests, in giving a report on a book, I could give you the color of the eyes, and if somebody had six toes. I mean, I was able to, you know, give that kind of information. And from that point on, I was able to - I wasn't able to basically open a book again. I was - I mean, I've read, but I read very slow, but I cannot comprehend. And I can understand, but because I'm slow at reading...

CONAN: So it obviously didn't work in your case, Jerry. Did - how did you do? Did you graduate school and move on?

JERRY: That's just it. That's just it. I didn't even graduate. I stayed in school, I loved school. I actually loved school. I just - I made it to the end of my 12th year of school, of high school, ended up dropping out because I just, I couldn't seem to ever get caught up. Everybody that I knew - I mean, I know...

CONAN: Jerry, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, but thank you very much for the call. We're talking about retention. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the debate over how to help third-graders who can't read at grade level: Hold them back a year and help them improve, as some states require, or, as others say, avoid the stigma and consequences of retention and promote students to the fourth grade, but give them extra reading help through tutors or other tools.

If you're a teacher or a parent making that tough decision, if you were held back, call and tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Two people with different views on the matter are with us: Tim Taylor, who serves as president of Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders focused on Colorado's education system, and David Berliner, educational psychologist and Regent's professor of Education at Arizona State University.

David Berliner, I know you will take issue with some of the statistics that Tim Taylor has. He will take issue with yours. People here are, on both sides, people of goodwill who are trying to fix the system. Is it simply a matter of resources?

BERLINER: Well, I think it is a lot of resources. But I want to get at a point that one of your callers had, that she saw a great growth in her daughter. What she didn't have was identical twins. If she had identical twins and had let one go ahead and be promoted and kept one back, the research overwhelmingly says that the one who was promoted would have done better and been more personally secure in schooling.

That research is really incontrovertible. It's not a matter of disagreeing on the data. Retention in grade is a bad choice. Now, the Colorado legislation says it should be the choice of last resort. I agree. They're certainly wise enough to say we need to do everything else. But Colorado is not facing some facts about the reading problem, like it's got one of the fastest growing poverty rates in the nation.

It's got about 17 percent of its children in poverty, and that means that the kids who are going to be left back are likely to be poor. They're likely to be boys. They're likely to be minorities. They're likely to be English-language learners. Do you really want a system that, as a last resort, discriminates?

And it seems to me what you need to do is put lots more money in up front, so that you don't reach that point of last resort.

CONAN: Tim Taylor, I hate to inject - I hate to be the one injecting even more statistics, but it is three times more likely that somebody retained at third-grade level will be African-American, twice as likely that they will be Hispanic.

TAYLOR: Yeah, and some of those demographic trends that David mentioned is the reason we did this. In the past, most retention had been done on a subjective level, and we need it to be done objectively. And if - one of the places that we looked as we did this legislation was in Florida, where their low-income population reading scores grew by two-and-a-half grade levels between 1998 and 2009, when they put this policy in place.

In Colorado at the same time period, our scores grew by four points. It's incredible that we could envision leaving these kids behind, and just because they are low-income, or they are children of color, that they can't read, or we wouldn't expect for them to read.

We have got to change the culture around this and expect that every child is able to read. It's the only shot they've got to compete in a competitive global economy, is to have the reading skills they'll need to go out and get a job. Our employers do not have jobs for kids who are unable to read coming out of high school.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Koshaun(ph), Koshaun with us from Augusta, Georgia.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

KOSHAUN: Hi. I'm a high school math teacher, and I agree with both gentlemen on your panel. It's a struggle when the kids are promoted without being able to read, because, of course, it eliminates their ability to comprehend. And being a high school math teacher, it's a challenge when the kids cannot understand what the instructions are. And when they read at an extremely slow rate, it's like they're trying to memorize words. So they kind of shut down on word problems.

Now, I also agree that retention is not always the answer. I support some type of intervention. And if the third grade is where these decisions are being made, I think that the parents should have some option, or someone will have something in place to where if it's just reading alone - because you have some kids that can excel in other areas, but may struggle in reading. They have spatial sense. They have strong memory skills that may help them to excel in other subject areas.

And it's also affected by the teaching strategy, what type of instruction that they have. And if they're retained, and they're placed in the same environment, where the parents aren't supporting the kids' reading, or the parents don't have the kids reading beyond the school setting, then who's to say that retaining that student would help?

CONAN: Yeah, and I hear what you're saying, Koshaun, but resources - as you know far better than I - are limited.

KOSHAUN: They are limited. And the thing about it is accountability has to be placed, and I think on the parents. But in a lot of cases - what is sad - is that you don't have the parental support, or the parents don't have the resources, in a lot of cases, for these kids that are failing. And the ones that do, I think they go out, and they acquire the resources on their own.

And with budget cuts, a lot of school systems don't have the supplemental education services in place. But a lot of areas, they do, and a lot of kids, unfortunately, they don't take advantage of it. And it is frustrating, you know, seeing kids entering high school that really cannot read, and I'll give an example.

Right now, I'll call out eight words, just: tear open top of bag along dotted line. Now it's difficult to remember those eight words, but I gave you the instructions to open an air freshener. It just says tear open top of bag along dotted lines. Now, trying to remember those eight words may appear to be a challenge, and imagine a kid reading 22 words of instructions. And they just shut down.

And these are some challenges that I know myself face as a math teacher, and other instructors, also. But it is something that a decision will have to be made, and it's going to be based on what satisfies, I guess, the greater good. Again, the accountability, though, it has to take place at home.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Koshaun. Appreciate it. David Berliner, given that we live in a world of limited resources, should more of them be devoted to this particular age group?

BERLINER: Well, I think so. I think we find other countries - for example, Finland and South Korea - which beat us every time we do the international tests, do not allow grade retention. What do they do instead? Finland makes sure that every kid gets help along the way whenever they fall behind.

You get pneumonia and you're out six weeks, you get tutoring to help you catch up. You're falling behind in second grade, you get tutoring to help you catch up. Finland invests in making sure no kid falls behind. What Colorado is trying to do is very laudable, making sure no kid falls behind, but then they're saying if we fail, we're going to leave them back. And my argument is that's still the wrong decision to be made.

CONAN: And as you know, there are other states, such as Florida, which we mentioned, where retention is not - it's automatic. If you fail the test, you're held back.

BERLINER: Arizona, my state, is doing the same thing, and I think it's the wrong decision for almost the entire group they'll leave back, and it's also a biased decision.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kathleen, Kathleen with us from New Bern in North Carolina.

KATHLEEN: Hello. Thank you so much. I was held back in first grade because my age. I was apparently too young or too old. Anyway, I turned seven in October when I got into first grade, and it completely affected my self-esteem. I felt like I was dumb. And I couldn't do well on standardized tests, which led me to not pass a certain test that determined whether or not I would go into a gifted program.

And when that happened, I felt like I was not only left behind by my age group, but also my intellectual peers. It was really frustrating and very sad. But I got help later, but I fell through the cracks of the public school system.

CONAN: And Tim Taylor, this is - I know you believe sincerely that retention is, in some cases, clearly the best thing to do, but the effects - as Kathleen and some of our other callers have illustrated - they're very real.

TAYLOR: Oh, absolutely. And in that case, it sounded like the retention was done based on an age piece. And what we're trying to identify is whether the kids have the skills. And we need to change the culture in our schools so that isn't done in some schools, but not in others, or a teacher has the final decision. This is something where we have to look at the test scores, find out whether the student has the capacity.

And if we change the culture across the board, this is not going to be a stigma for these kids. This is what's going to be happening to all their peers around them. And what - the gift that we're going to give them is the joy and the love of reading so they can succeed through the rest of their school career, and they can read to learn when they're in high school and college, when they're going to need those skills to be productive citizens.

CONAN: Let's talk to Jenny, Jenny with us from Mulvane in Kansas.

JENNY: Yes, hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JENNY: I have two sons, one who's graduating this year and one who is in seventh grade. And both - one in math, and one in reading - that would pass the standardized test, but was failing their daily work and their class work. I'm a stay-at-home mom who would help and try and get the teachers' attention, and they passed my children. And as they got older, they now struggle, have struggled, with both math and reading.

I had asked that my younger son be held back both in third and fourth grade. And they went ahead and passed him because they couldn't hold him back, they said, because he passed the standardized test.

CONAN: And you wish there had been an option.

JENNY: Right. And now he's in seventh grade, and he honestly has told me himself that it wouldn't have been a bad thing had he been held beck because then he wouldn't feel so left behind now. He struggles now. And honestly, what I think our - we need is to get rid of summer break. Two long breaks in a year, you know, maybe a couple more besides the holidays. But wasn't summer break meant for when we had farms and we needed our children to come help harvest our crops? This is a little old-fashioned, and I think everybody is moving past us.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, but it's another idea for another day. We're just trying to focus on one issue at a time, Jenny. But thanks very much for the call, and we wish your children the best of luck.

JENNY: Oh, they're doing pretty well now, but he does struggle more than what I think he and I think he should have. They did not hold him back.

CONAN: Jenny, thanks very much. This is an email from Cindy(ph): After spending over 30 years as a school library media specialist, I'm convinced retaining students who have not reached grade-level goals by third grade is good practice. I watch students fall farther and farther behind, year after year, when earlier intervention could have changed their entire school experience. Our school system is one-size-fits-all into which we put individuals whose readiness is not all the same. Letting students experience success by giving them a second chance is good for the child, not a punishment for their nonperformance. It may also prevent future problems that students who lag behind in school often experience.

And, David Berliner, again, these are anecdotal, but these are...


CONAN: ...people with experience, suggesting that this might be a good idea.

BERLINER: Well, you've cast the problem as retention and promotion as if these are the only options and the whole debate we're getting today is about that, and it's not. Colorado is willing to spend money on leaving kids back. I don't know what they spend per kid in elementary school. Let's say it's $10,000 a year. So the state has committed to spend an extra $10,000 to leave a kid back in third grade.

Why not spend that $10,000 on tutoring services for the child in fourth and fifth grade to help the child catch up? It's not just the choice of retention or promotion. It's a choice of how are you going to use the resources you've already committed by the state to the child?

And I would suggest that the tutoring option would work just as well. You put the kid back, you're going to put the kid back with 30 more kids. The teacher is going to have limited time to work with that kid. You might as well invest in a tutor with the money you are already going to spend by leaving the kid back.

CONAN: Tim Taylor, was that considered as an option, or how did this issue come to focus on retention in third grade?

TAYLOR: We hope that we found the balance in Colorado and that, again, that we try to do both. We don't think it's an either/or. We are putting significant funds and $16 million for summer school reading tutors, full-day kindergarten, other pieces that will help get - kids get prepared. But as they move through the system, we just want to make sure that by the time they get to the end of third grade, they have the skills they'll need to succeed in the fourth grade.

And I want to be really clear about this as well, is that we're talking about the functionally illiterate. This is - these are kids who are truly not just a little bit below grade level, but who are functionally illiterate. And some kids just need a little bit more time, and there is nothing wrong with that. It's a falsehood to think that we're just going to push them through the system and everybody is going to get this at the same time. But it's like building a house.

If you have a foundation and the foundation isn't quite ready, you wouldn't dare put the second or the third stories on that house. So let's make sure that we let the foundation set and the kids have the skills they need, and then we can build something really meaningful on top of that. And they can succeed and have - be productive citizens and contribute to our economy.

CONAN: Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds. He's with us from KUVO, our member station in Denver. David Berliner, Regents' professor of education in Arizona State University, with us from member station KJZZ in Tempe. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this from Joy(ph) in Alabama: I heard your topic on my local NPR station, WBHM. I think that's in Birmingham. Pretty sure it is. I'm struggling with this because my son in first grade has been considered for retention by his teacher and administrators. They say he's immature. However, he can read at a first grade instructional level. However, he can do math, word problems without an issue. We, his parents, do not want to retain him. When we discussed it with him, he was against it. Looking for opinions on this. He is a May birthday, and can they keep saying he's just so young? What to do?

David Berliner, any...

BERLINER: Yes. I met a kindergarten teacher who retained a kid because he was immature. And I said, so the decision to help the child mature is to leave them with more immature children instead of with more mature children, in which he'll learn the social norms of what maturity means? It's the same issue here.

By leaving the kid back, you're ensuring that the child will be with more immature children. By promoting the child, if it's an immaturity issue, you're at least putting the child in a classroom where the children are gaining maturity.

For the immaturity excuse for leaving the kid back, I think that's just a terrible reason to do so. You want the kid - if the kid is so immature, promote him a grade or two so that the kid is hanging out with mature people and he learns the skills of maturity.

CONAN: So if it's a immaturity issue, perhaps the mistake was made at the start.

BERLINER: Yes, I think so.

CONAN: All right. As we go ahead and other states consider such legislation, David Berliner, why do you think it has become a political issue to focus on reading at third grade level?

BERLINER: Well, I think we all agree - Tim and I, and everyone else in the country agrees - that if you have a problem at third grade with a kid, the predictions are pretty dire. So we know we need to do something. The question is what do you do? And are you willing to invest in those kids the money you need? The commitment is made when you leave a kid back to invest roughly $10,000 in that kid. There has to be better ways to do it, given everything we know about the effects of leaving a child back, both the personal effects, the social-emotional. And frankly, the data is pretty overwhelming that they don't do better in the long run, and they drop out at five times the rate of kids who are not left back, according to the National Center for Statistics.

So what we need are other methods to cope with the child who's not reading well. And again, I think the Colorado legislation is pretty clear. They're trying to do that. I just think the final decision that they're going to make on a kid is still the wrong one.

CONAN: Tim Taylor, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it. Tim Taylor joined us from KUVO, our member station in Denver. And our thanks as well to David Berliner, who you just heard, who's a professor of education at Arizona State University with us from KJZZ in Tempe. Coming up: President Theodore Taylor - excuse me - President Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington and the White House dinner that changed history. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.