COLUMBIA, SC — Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler has introduced a bill modeled on a third-grade retention policy widely promoted by Jeb Bush as part of his so-called Florida Formula. Education Superintendent Mick Zais has endorsed the bill and suggested implementing similar policies at seventh grade.
There’s just one problem with these ideas: The Florida formula has been thoroughly discredited. Research shows that retention produces mixed positive outcomes along with many negative consequences for children and taxpayers, and initiatives such as Just Read, Florida, replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as South Carolina.
First, whether third graders pass or are retained is based on high-stakes test scores, and there is a powerful correlation between test scores and out-of-school factors. Increasing the stakes associated with test scores will impact disproportionately and negatively the highest-needs populations: high-poverty students, minority students, English-language learners and special-needs students.
High-stakes test scores in reading are weak evidence of any child’s literacy, and measures such as “on grade level” are equally flawed. Instead of creating a punitive policy, South Carolina needs to move beyond test-based educational practices, especially with our youngest and highest-needs students.
Second, the “Florida Miracle”— like the “Texas Miracle,” the “Harlem Miracle” and the “Chicago Miracle” — has been discredited because of incomplete data, misrepresented accomplishments or outright failures masked by political advocacy.
Matthew Di Carlo, a fellow at the Shanker Institute, acknowledges some basic gains in reading made by Florida students, but offers a strong caution: “A few of the reforms may have generated moderate but meaningful increases in test-based performance (with all the limitations that this implies) among the students and schools they affected. In a couple of other cases, there seems to have been little discernible impact on testing outcomes (and/or there is not yet sufficient basis to draw even highly tentative conclusions). It’s a good bet — or at least wishful thinking — that most of the evidence is still to come …. Whether we like it or not, real improvements at aggregate levels are almost always slow and incremental. There are no ‘miracles,’ in Florida or anywhere else. The sooner we realize that, and start choosing and judging policies based on attainable expectations that accept the reality of the long haul, the better.”
Third, all the actual evidence on grade retention reveals negative consequences for children (academic and emotional) and for taxpayers, the public.
While public sentiment leans toward grade retention based on a popular rejection of social promotion, decades of research show that retention and social promotion actually lead to powerful negative consequences for students. Grade retention has only one clear outcome: increasing the likelihood of a student becoming a drop-out.
In a high-poverty state such as South Carolina, test-based grade-retention policies will increase the negative outcomes of high-poverty minority students, perpetuating the exact problems education reform should be alleviating.
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center, has detailed that retention fails students and ultimately taxpayers because it increases drop-out rates:
“1. She may drop out, meaning she will pay about $60,000 less in taxes over her lifetime, be more likely to commit crimes, and be more likely to depend on government assistance; or
“2. She may complete high school, at a cost of an extra year of school — about $10,000. If retention had a substantial payoff, paying for an extra year of school would be worthwhile (although it nationally adds up to billions of dollars each year). But there’s no benefit. With grade retention, we are paying more and getting a worse outcome.”
Instead of following the punitive and ineffective Florida formula, S.C. reading reform should include low-cost but evidence-based policy changes, which include increasing students’ access to books in their homes and schools, supporting students reading by choice for extended periods during the school day and creating holistic and authentic models for assessing reading.