If you visited a third grade classroom and saw the young student pictured to the left, would you immediately think to yourself, “Oh my gosh, that child is eight-years-old. I can’t believe he’s not walking yet!

In your mind, would you jump to the conclusion that this child must just be lazy or has not been made to care enough to walk by the adults in his life?

Would you immediately think to blame the teacher and/or school for their failure to get this young boy to walk on grade level after four years of formal schooling?

Why not? For goodness sake, almost every other child his age in the world has been walking for six or seven years by this point in their life. Why has this boy chosen not to? Maybe we just need to set our expectations higher. Why doesn’t someone just tell him to get up and walk?

If he continues to fail to walk, would you support holding him out of his art and music classes to allow more time for walking remediation? To move on to the next grade, would you require that he attend special walking classes in the summer? Would you support legislation to retain this child in early grades to allow him more time to grasp the art of walking upright?

We all know children must be taught how to walk before we can teach them to run. Fourth graders need to be able to RUN in order to keep up with peers, right? Isn’t walking a skill he will need for success in his life?

Of course, the paragraphs above are hyperbole. For most reasonable people, this type of mindset would wreak of ignorance and insensitivity. If someone actually said these words, we would be justifiably angry.

I would hope that most people would view this child with compassion and understanding. We would reserve judgment about the child’s capabilities lacking knowledge of the circumstances that led to this point in time. We might wonder if the child suffered from some kind of physical disability or was recently injured.

More importantly, we would likely demand that this child not be viewed as “inferior” to his peers and that he receives whatever services he needs to be as academically successful as possible.

In short, we would go above and beyond to ensure we protected this child from things that could do permanent harm to his sense of worth and self-confidence.

I think it is safe to say the notion of holding this otherwise normal child back a year as an intervention would NEVER cross our minds.

So, why is it acceptable to do the very same thing to children whose disabilities or challenges are not as obvious to our eyes?

Why is it okay to make these inferences or judgments about a child with a learning disability or dyslexia or any other type of cognitive impairment that affects his or her ability to read on grade level at eight-years-old?

Children learning English as a second language (especially newcomers) often find themselves living in two worlds – a school where everyone else speaks English and a home where most of the conversation is in a completely different language. Likewise, children growing up in poverty or in dysfunctional homes come to our classrooms with many serious problems to address in additional to academic struggles.

Is holding these children back a year really the right thing for us to do?

Please don’t tell me that “third grade retention is working” because state reading scores in 3rd or 4th grade have increased slightly. One or two years of data based on a multiple choice test with constantly changing standards is not convincing.

As I’ve shared before, recent short-term increases in fourth grade state or national reading scores are thoroughly predictable, given the fact that most of the lower scoring readers have been removed from the sample, or are tested a full year later than normal.

Who will be around eight to ten years from now to talk with these same students about the long-term effects of grade retention? Will they come back to share with us the number of dropouts in the class of 2025 who were subjected to retention in third grade?

How many of these students will learn to view reading as punishment and become victims of “readicide,” a termed coined by author Kelly Gallagher to describe “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”

Granted, while there may be some anecdotal evidence that retention may work for some children some times, the overwhelming research evidence indicates that retention is bad for kids.

In their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass, take on this issue.

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children, further exacerbating the “achievement gap.”

Third grade retention assumes that children can be punished into excellence and achievement, yet there isn’t a lick of support to suggest that it creates smarter, healthier, happier grown-ups.

Retaining students is a shortcut answer to a problem that actually works against our goals as educators. We would do better to attend to struggling students with programmatic changes than with this mean-spirited “hold them back” approach.

Don’t misread what I am saying. I also have misgivings relative to blanket practices of social promotion. There are children for whom grade retention is the best option to address the unique social and academic needs of a child.

This issue simply illustrates the problems associated with bureaucrats at the state and national level establishing mandates that strip local educators and parents from making the best decisions for individual children.

If we actually wanted to solve the problem of third grade reading proficiency there are so many things we could do.

In nearly all cases, children struggling with reading deficiencies do NOT need retention, they need more attention.

Here’s a wild idea. Instead of simply demanding that eight-years-olds read on grade level or be punished, why doesn’t the state actually allocate adequate resources so that schools can do the things necessary to help kids.

In Oklahoma, it costs, on average, about 4,000 dollars to retain a child (the cost of an extra year of school). By not retaining children, schools will save thousands of dollars in costs, not to mention all the human costs related to high drop-out rates and behavior issues related to retention that will crop up in future years.

With more money, we could add additional teachers at the K-3 level so that each student could get more focused personal instruction.

With more money, we could add more intervention programs and personnel so that the moment a student faltered, that child would get all the help she needed.

With more money, we could implement individual tutoring, summer programs and early intervention programs, such as Reading Recovery, all which have been shown to be effective ways to provide struggling students with the attention needed to “catch-up.”

With more money, we could pursue aggressive programs to put books into children’s homes.

With more money, we could allocate more resources on early childhood programs, wrap around health programs and smaller class sizes in high-poverty areas.

Finally, we could use methods of assessment that would more reliably tell us about student reading skills, and not more ridiculously inauthentic annual state reading test.

As well-respected education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond has written:

“People often present this as if there are only two choices — choice one is hold the kids back and the other is socially promote them without any additional resources or strategies. But the third way, the right response, is one in which you identify the resources they must have and ensure they are getting them immediately.”

As a final thought, I’m pleased to see that State Senator J.J. Dossett (D-Tulsa) has introduced legislation (Senate Bill 123), that would remove the retention language from the current Reading Sufficiency Act while maintaining the focus on providing children with appropriate reading interventions as early as possible.

I thoroughly support Senator Dossett’s proposal. He understands that we – as a state – must attend to our struggling students, not merely condemn them to the false promise of improvement through grade retention.

As one of my colleagues remarked at a recent legislative forum: “We (Oklahoma) have removed the high stakes tests (EOIs) for our older students; it’s time to do the same for our eight-year-olds.”

Amen! It is time to eliminate mandatory third grade retention in Oklahoma.