Why holding back students based on reading proficiency does not help

The pandemic created an environment where strong readers continued to grow and those who struggled fell further behind.
Paul Black
Paul Blackhttps://readinghorizons.com/
Paul Black is a school psychologist and lead education specialist for Reading Horizons. He can be reached at paul.black@readinghorizons.com.

Retaining students based on reading proficiency doesn’t work, but year after year districts and schools across the U.S. do it. Now, with the latest release of National Center for Education Statistics data, more students are about to be punished simply because they haven’t had appropriate reading instruction.

The problem with retention

The majority of states have laws that require or allow schools to hold back students who do not pass state standardized tests. Educators who engage in this practice believe they are doing what’s best for students, but historically it ends up doing more harm than good. Research shows that while students might make gains by repeating third grade, learning gaps appear again once they move on to fourth grade.

Now, after over two years of pandemic-driven learning recovery, the impact is more severe. Reading performance overall is suffering but the pandemic created an environment where strong readers continued to grow and those who struggled fell further behind. This accumulated advantage, also known as the Matthew effect, will continue to grow if we don’t address the barriers between students and progress.

Beyond exaggerating existing gaps and not being effective, using reading as the highest measuring stick for student progress ignores the other benefits students get from school. Reading is a foundational skill, but if a student is successful in other areas outside of school, do they really deserve to be held back? Instead of punishing students, we need to find new ways to support them so they can learn critical literacy skills in any grade.

Choosing prevention instead of retention

With a tidal wave of students about to potentially be held back, instead of using retention of students as a primary strategy, it’s time to pivot to prevention.

The science of reading is the most effective approach to developing strong readers. However, many of the most popular curricula aren’t backed by the science of reading. More districts and schools must adopt science-backed reading approaches, and do it earlier in students’ learning journeys.

FETC 2023

The Future of Education Technology® Conference takes place live and in-person Jan. 23-26, 2023, in New Orleans. Register now!

Kindergarteners who master foundational skills in phonemic awareness and phonics will be better set up for a lifetime of reading success. Through these prevention-first strategies, every student can receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction.

Getting all teachers on board with the science of reading

The shift to focusing on prevention instead of retention can only happen if teachers truly understand the science of reading. If educators are using ineffective, or sometimes harmful, approaches to teaching reading then students have even less of a chance of mastering the skills they need. Requiring the science of reading in teacher prep programs is essential. Teachers should learn the fundamentals of the approach so they are ready to guide students.

Of course, changing the curriculum of teachers colleges solves only part of the equation. Many teachers in classrooms right now have no background in the science of reading. We need ways to reach them, and do it quickly. There are vast amounts of free resources for educators who want to adopt the science of reading, and mentorship programs help reinforce that learning.


More from DA: Why many high school graduates don’t feel ready for college and career decisions 


Introducing mentoring to current teachers will help them understand how to teach the science of reading, even if it was not part of their initial education.

How to change course now

Many of these changes will take time to implement, but as educators react to the Nation’s Report Card data and consider what interventions students need, there are a couple of things they can do right now:

  1. Review current curricula and make sure it aligns with the science of reading.
  2. Focus on students’ genius. Help students see what they are good at, instead of only focusing on reading. If a student loves music or excels athletically, lean into those areas. Doing so can help boost students’ self-esteem while they get the reading support they need.
  3. Provide grade-appropriate content. Often, when students are not proficient in reading, educators begin assigning reading materials designed for much younger children. This will not help students advance, and also steals their dignity.

Reversing the approach to retention based on reading proficiency won’t be easy, but it is possible. For a long time, holding back students was the only way schools knew to intervene with struggling students. But now we know better.

By using available materials and adopting substantive changes focused on supporting educators, we can also support the success of more students. Because to paraphrase Maya Angelou, now that we know better, we can do better.

Most Popular