Skip Navigation

Home Ask A REL Third Grade Retention - What does the research say about retaining students in third grade for not being able to read at grade level?

Third Grade Retention - What does the research say about retaining students in third grade for not being able to read at grade level?

Northwest | October 01, 2019

Third Grade Retention


Barrett-Tatum, J., Ashworth, K., & Scales, D. (2019). Gateway literacy retention policies: Perspectives and implications from the field. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 15(10), 1–17. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"South Carolina's Read to Succeed Law (RTS) is different than the other 15 states' literacy-based third grade retention laws. It mandates literacy intervention training for in-service and pre-service teachers. Research indicates academic gains from retention are short-lived, diminishing over time and increasing drop-out rates. Through a statewide survey, this study identifies educators' perceptions and knowledge of retention and the RTS policy and examines the relationship between knowledge and perceptions. Educators were not familiar with retention research or RTS specifics but favored retention. Implications include the need for more teacher training regarding new state policies and the efficacy of their foundations. This study provides evidence that policymakers should consider the means of implementation and shoulder accountability for a structured and equitable support system."

Froman, T., Brown, S., & Luzon-Canasi, A. (2008). Third-grade retention: A four-year follow-up. Miami, FL: Research Services, Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

From the Abstract:
"This study duplicated the procedures used by Greene and Winters (2006) on data from the Miami-Dade school system with the advantage of an additional two years' worth of information. The results indicated that the effects of the retention policy are far from clear and arguably negative. There is considerable evidence to suggest that the apparent gains of the retained students may have been short-lived if not completely illusory. The lack of precise measurement and a precisely appropriate comparison group prevent an indisputable interpretation. The superficially obvious benefit of retention to some students and the equally obvious detriment of retention to others will likely keep large-scale test-based promotion policies a matter of heated debate subject to political fashion for the foreseeable future."

Greene, J. P., & Winters, M. A. (2004). An evaluation of Florida's program to end social promotion (Education Working Paper No. 7). New York, NY: Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

From the Abstract:
"Nine states and three of the nation's biggest cities have adopted mandates intended to end 'social promotion' promoting students to the next grade level regardless of their academic proficiency. These policies require students in certain grades to reach a minimum benchmark on a standardized test in order to move on to the next grade. Florida, Texas, and seven other states, as well as the cities of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, have adopted mandatory promotion tests; these school systems encompass 30% of all U.S. public-school students. Proponents of such policies claim that students must possess basic skills in order to succeed in higher grades, while opponents argue that holding students back discourages them and only pushes them further behind. This study uses individual-level data provided by the Florida Department of Education to evaluate the initial effects of Florida's policy requiring students to reach a minimum threshold on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) to be promoted to the 4th grade. It examines the gains made in one year on math and reading tests by all Florida 3rd graders in the first cohort subject to the retention policy who scored below the necessary threshold, comparing them to all Florida 3rd graders in the previous year with the same low test scores, for whom the policy was not yet in force. Because some students subject to the policy obtained special exemptions and were promoted, the study also uses an instrumental regression analysis to separately measure the effects of actually being retained. The study measures gains made by students on both the high-stakes FCAT and the Stanford-9, a nationally respected standardized test that is also administered to all Florida students, but with no stakes tied to the results."

Greene, J. P., & Winters, M. A. (2007). Revisiting grade retention: An evaluation of Florida's test-based promotion policy. Education Finance and Policy, 2(4), 319–340. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"In 2002, Florida adopted a test-based promotion policy in the third grade in an attempt to end social promotion. Similar policies are currently operating in Texas, New York City, and Chicago and affect at least 17 percent of public-school students nationwide. Using individual level data on the universe of public-school students in Florida, we analyze the impact of grade retention on student proficiency in reading one and two years after the retention decision. We use an instrumental variable (IV) approach made available by the relatively objective nature of Florida's policy. Our findings suggest that retained students slightly outperformed socially promoted students in reading in the first year after retention, and these gains increased substantially in the second year. Results were robust across two distinct IV comparisons: an across-year approach comparing students who were essentially separated by the year in which they happened to have been born, and a regression discontinuity design."

Schwerdt, G., West, M. R., & Winters, M. A. (2017). The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida (NBER Working Paper 21509). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from:

From the Abstract:
"Many American states require that students lacking basic reading proficiency after third grade be retained and remediated. We exploit a discontinuity in retention probabilities under Florida's test-based promotion policy to study its effects on student outcomes through high school. We find large positive effects on achievement that fade out entirely when retained students are compared to their same-age peers, but remain substantial through grade 10 when compared to students in the same grade. Being retained in third grade due to missing the promotion standard increases students' grade point averages and leads them to take fewer remedial courses in high school but has no effect on their probability of graduating."

Winters, M. A. (2012). The benefits of Florida's test-based promotion system (Civic Report No. 68). New York, NY: Center for State and Local Leadership at the Manhattan Institute.

From the Abstract:
"State and municipal policymakers are increasingly addressing the practice of social promotion in schools-moving children along to the next grade whether or not they have mastered the curriculum-by mandating test-based grade promotion. This paper draws conclusions about the effects of a policy limiting social promotion. To do so, it employs a methodology known as regression discontinuity, which is capable of producing causal estimates of policy effects to study the impact of Florida's test-based promotion policy on later student achievement. Under this program, students must take an exam to automatically pass from third to fourth grade (some students scoring below the automatic promotion threshold may still advance at teacher discretion). Students who are retained in third grade also receive a rigorous remediation regime aimed at improving their long-term performance. By studying the long-term performance of children who just barely passed the test, as well as those who were just barely left behind, it was possible to compare two essentially identical populations: one set of students who moved forward despite only borderline understanding of the material; and another set who stayed behind a year and received tutoring, mentoring, and other remedial interventions. On average, the students who were remediated did better academically, in both the short and long term, than those who were promoted. Tellingly, the benefits of the remediation were still apparent and substantial through the seventh grade (which is as far as the data can be tracked at this point). These results contrast with previous work cited by supporters of social promotion finding that grade retention has strong negative consequences for the student's later academic outcomes. This paper takes the view that there is considerable reason to question the validity of much of that research because most prior studies on grade retention use methods that are flawed or inadequate. Notably, these studies do not take into account 'unobserved differences' between students studied. Unobserved differences are characteristics, such as maturity level or home environment, that aren't accounted for in the researchers' datasets, but which may have an enormous bearing on student performance. The results of this study demonstrate that a test-based promotion policy structured similar to Florida's policy should be expected to improve student performance relative to a policy of social promotion. Florida's system is an example for policy makers across the country to emulate."

Other Resources

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters. KIDS COUNT special report. Baltimore, MD: Author.

From the Abstract:
"Over the past decade, Americans have become increasingly concerned about the high numbers—and costs—of high school dropouts. The time is now to build a similar consensus around this less-recognized but equally urgent fact: The pool from which employers, colleges, and the military draw is too small, and still shrinking, because millions of American children get to fourth grade without learning to read proficiently. And that puts them on the dropout track. This special report highlights the causes and consequences of low reading proficiency and proposes some essential steps toward closing the gap between those who can and cannot read proficiently, raising the bar for what people expect all American children to know and be able to do, and improving the overall achievement of children from low-income families."

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2013). Early warning confirmed: A research update on third-grade reading. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This report underscores the urgency of ensuring that children develop proficient reading skills by the end of third grade, especially those living in poverty or in impoverished communities. A follow up to 2010's ‘Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,' this report supports the link between reading deficiencies and broader social consequences, including how living in poor households and high-poverty neighborhoods contribute to racial disparities in literacy skills in America and how low achievement in reading impacts an individual's future earning potential."

Weyer, M. (2018). A look at third-grade reading retention policies.National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Since 1998, states have been actively considering and enacting legislation to address retaining third graders. Currently, 16 states and Washington, D.C., require retention. Eight states allow retention, but do not require it."

Workman, E. (2014). Third grade reading policies. Technical report. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.

From the Abstract:
"The third-grade year is considered a pivotal point in a child's educational career, as a critical shift in learning takes place--one where basic reading skills are established and can begin to be utilized for more complex learning. State policymakers are well aware of the importance of ensuring that all students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) has seen a flurry of policies passed recently that are geared toward improving third grade reading through identification of reading deficiencies with state or local assessments, provision of interventions for struggling readers in grade K-3 and retention of outgoing third graders not meeting grade-level expectations. This report provides statutory provisions on the identification of, intervention for and retention of struggling readers in the preK-3 grades."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: 3rd grade retention, 3rd grade repetition, grade retention AND third grade AND reading, grade repetition AND reading AND third grade

Connect with REL Northwest