Should More Missouri Students Be Held Back?
Around the country, states are considering implementing policies that would hold back a larger number of 3rd graders who are struggling to read. Currently, 17 states require students who score below a minimum threshold on a standardized test to be retained in 3rd grade, where they will receive focused intervention. In light of Missouri 3rd graders’ recent disheartening Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) scores, should policymakers explore increasing 3rd-grade retention?
Mississippi (which typically holds back between 4–10 percent of third graders) is viewed as a successful model for this type of retention policy. Started in 2013, the Mississippi policy requires a sufficient score on the state English/language arts assessment or on either of the two retest opportunities (with certain exceptions made for English-language learning students and students with disabilities). This strategy is rooted in the idea that students need to receive a firm foundation in reading before advancing to higher grades. Mississippi has seen its efforts pay off—between 2013 and 2019, the state’s 4th-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rose by 10 points, while the national average decreased by 1. Mississippi moved from rank 49th to 29th in 4th-grade reading over this time period.
There are also drawbacks to this policy. For students who are trying hard and get left behind, this can be a very tough social situation. Having friends go on to the next grade means the student left behind has less interaction with friends—different classes, different sports teams, different lunch schedules, and more. This can be demoralizing for a student. In Mississippi, students can be held back for up to two years before automatically advancing to the next grade. Kids being potentially two years older than their peers can create awkward social situations and increase bullying. You could be driving a car in 8th grade, be an 18-year-old sophomore, or be a 20-year-old senior. One concern is that being 18 as a junior or sophomore may increase drop-out rates. However, Mississippi actually reached an all-time high in its high school graduation rate in 2022—rising from 74.5 percent in 2014 to 88.9 percent.
Can families bear these unconventional social situations in order for their children to succeed in school? Mississippi has seen drastic improvement in both scores and graduation rates since implementing its reading policy. Missouri’s 3rd-grade scores—and frankly all of our state’s test scores— indicate drastic action is needed. Implementing a reading policy such as Mississippi’s may be a good place to start.