SALT LAKE CITY — Literacy specialist Kathy Callister has helped two generations of struggling readers in her 20 years of teaching at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary, a small school in the mountain village of Hesperus, Colo.
As a Title I school, Fort Lewis Mesa has a high proportion of students from low-income families. That means Callister's students are statistically at risk for low reading proficiency a problem linked with failure to finish high school and a lifetime of reduced opportunities.
Each week, Callister spends time with each grade's lagging readers at her school, applying research-based interventions to boost skills. She works with the school's teachers to improve their reading instruction, too. A particular emphasis is ensuring that kids read well by the end of third grade.
"Things change in third grade," Callister said. "Kids are not just learning fundamentals of reading. They are reading for meaning and to learn. If kids are struggling to decode the words, they don't get much meaning from the text and don't learn what they need to know."
Nationally, 85 percent of children from low-income families failed to reach proficiency levels by fourth grade on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Improving reading proficiency is seen as imperative to keeping the U.S. competitive in the global marketplace, and third grade is where the battle is being fought hardest.
Creating proficient readers by the end of third grade is considered so important that several states have enacted policies requiring third-graders with low scores to repeat the grade with extra coaching in reading. However, researchers and teachers haven't reached consensus about whether grade retention has long-term benefits.
Retention might even be counterproductive. Massive evidence shows that "retained students achieve at lower levels, are more likely to drop out of high school, and have worse social-emotional outcomes than superficially similar students who are promoted," according to a new study from the Brookings Institute.
However, the Brookings study goes on to say that previous research on retention might have an inherent flaw.
"The disappointing outcomes of retained students may well reflect the reasons they were held back in the first place rather than the consequences of being retained," the study said.
Factors in poor reading
Many of Callister's students at Fort Lewis Mesa are behind in reading readiness when they enter school, because they haven't had early exposure to books nor access to experiences that build reading readiness.
"Some families don't speak English at home, and many parents are overwhelmed and in survival mode," she said. "They are struggling to put food on table and don't have much energy left to talk, read and play with their children. You have to address the emotional and social issues before a child can really learn."
Absenteeism is a big contributor to reading difficulties at Callister's school, and across the nation.
"If parents don't value going to school, or have to work all night and can't get their kids on the school bus, it doesn't matter how great my instruction is," Callister said. "They aren't there to get it."
Retention vs. promotion
Her many years of personal observation have convinced Callister that holding a child back in third grade rarely helps.
"Retaining a child is an emotionally charged decision," she said. "It's often humiliating to the child, no matter how positive everyone is — often for the rest of their lives. The achievement gains fade. I think there are more appropriate ways to deal with lack of skill in reading."
Callister suggests intensive intervention at school by trained reading specialists, summer reading programs and workshops to help parents help their children.
"I really believe parents love their kids, they just sometimes need the skills to help their kids," she said. "Developing a relationship with the parents, and never judging, really makes a difference."
In Florida, retention policy changes show results that suggest retaining low-scoring readers might have benefits in some cases. Since 2003, the state has required many third-graders with low reading scores to repeat the grade with intensive remediation. (A variety of exclusions allow some low-scoring students to be promoted.)
It is too soon to tell whether Florida's retention policy will improve students' eventual workplace success and educational attainment. But, the retained students do perform better than their promoted peers in reading and math for several years after repeating third grade, according to the Brookings Institute Report. Those benefits diminish over time, however.
Third-grade retentions jumped from 2.8 to 13.5 percent in Florida after the policy was implemented. In the subsequent six years, the percentage of retentions declined steadily, prompting speculation that the retention policy might be motivating parents, teachers and students to work harder at improving reading skills.
Among many literacy experts who don't favor retention is Timothy Shanahan, curriculum and instruction director for the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"Retention offers a child an extra year of instruction at state expense. But many children refuse the offer; they return the extra year when they turn 16 by dropping out," Shanahan said. "If you retain a child a single year, you increase markedly his or her chances of dropping out. If you retain (the student) twice, you pretty much guarantee they will not finish high school. The medicine is as damaging as the malady it is prescribed to prevent."
Shanahan said that such problems as neglectful parents and poor school instruction at age 8 don't improve much over time.
"Retention doesn't address any of these underlying problems, so students aren't benefited by retention," he said. "Finally, retention is expensive. If your state pays $8,000 per student per year, and the schools were to retain 10,000 third graders, then it would cost the state approximately $80,000,000 in additional instructional costs."
The Brookings Institute report concludes that retention is most effective when additional funding is in place to provide retained students with intensive, research-based instruction in reading. And, local educators should have discretion to make decisions they believe are in the best interest of the child without compromising increased accountability. More evidence is needed, with those conditions in place, to determine how the benefits of retention stacks up against the cost, the report concluded.
How to improve a child's reading skills
Title 1 literacy specialist Kathy Callister offers tips for parents:
Talk to your children, from birth onward. Read aloud to them.
Make the library a fun place to go.
Encourage pre-school children to ask questions and answer patiently.
Pay attention to how much time children spend watching television and playing video games.
Enjoy nursery rhymes and songs together.
Build letter awareness by pointing out letters on signs and singing the alphabet song.
Point out the sounds that letters make, and have children listen for words that begin with a particular sound as you read to them.
Stay in close contact with your child's teacher.
Make age-appropriate reading material available at home, and listen to children read.
Have children write captions for the pictures they draw, make grocery lists for you and write thank you notes.