Ensure Kids Read by Nine: Third-Grade Promotion

This post is the final part of a four-part series detailing the implementation of the Alaska Reads Act. The first, second, and third posts may be found here, here, and here.

Ensuring children can read by the end of third grade is an important purpose of early childhood education. Class material beginning in fourth grade relies on students reading to learn, rather than learning to read; students who fall behind in reading rarely catch up to their peers. Yet only 21% of Alaska’s third graders were proficient in reading on the 2022 Alaska System of Academic Readiness (AK STAR). Ensuring that third-grade students are prepared for fourth-grade material with test-based promotion policies sets up students for success in fourth grade and beyond.

The Alaska Reads Act, passed in 2022, has several requirements and options for districts to improve student outcomes in reading. An important component of the required intensive reading intervention program is that a discussion about promotion to the subsequent grade is triggered when a student continues to show reading deficiencies on the spring screener.

Promoting struggling third-grade students to the fourth grade when they are far from prepared to learn fourth-grade material robs them of the opportunity to receive the additional time and interventions they need to catch up with their peers. It is critical to use that time well: not to simply repeat the same coursework with the same teacher, but for the student to receive individualized and comprehensive interventions. Students should be able to read at a minimum proficiency level before advancing to fourth grade because learning to read is so important — and catching up is so hard to do.

Under statute, the Alaska Reads Act requires that a third-grade student “should demonstrate sufficient reading skills to progress to grade four.” There are several options to demonstrate this readiness: testing at or above grade level on the statewide screening tool (mCLASS with DIBELS 8th Edition), or on the statewide assessment (AK STAR); testing at or above grade level on an alternate screening tool approved by DEED; or “demonstrating mastery of reading standards through a student reading portfolio.” Under the draft regulations, K-2 students need only demonstrate mastery on the early literacy screener.

If a third-grade student is not testing proficient on a screener or standardized assessment, it triggers a discussion at least 45 days before the end of the school year between the parent or guardian and the student’s teacher about grade progression. The child may create a reading portfolio to demonstrate their proficiency, which consists of evidence such as “audio or video of student performing a skill,” or data reports from free online literacy assessments like CORE Phonics Survey or MAZE.

Reading portfolios from other states typically involve a wide collection of a student’s work or are test-based. Tests such as CORE Phonics Survey, listed as an example to meet the requirements of Alaska’s reading portfolio, identify weaknesses but not the student’s grade level. For example, North Carolina’s reading portfolio is a series of passages and questions based on third-grade reading standards and treated as securely as test materials. Florida’s reading portfolio is an organized collection of work selected by the student’s teacher that demonstrates the student meets state standards.

If the parent or guardian decides that the child will progress to fourth grade without meeting grade standards through any of the available options, they must sign a waiver and acknowledge that 20 hours of documented intervention will occur during the summer.

Florida does not allow students to be assigned to a grade level based solely on age or other social factors. Students performing at the lowest achievement level on the state assessment will not be promoted until they achieve the required reading level. But Florida ensures that retained students get the support they need to catch up through intensive instruction, and families are provided information to help at home. Students may be exempted from retention for good cause, but those students promoted to fourth grade under a good-cause exemption are provided with intensive reading intervention and instruction specific to the student.

Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA) was passed in 2013 intending to improve the reading skills of K-3 students. Along with a kindergarten readiness assessment, a universal screener administered three times per year to K-3 students, and individualized reading plans, the LBPA incorporates retention for third-grade students that do not score above the lowest two achievement levels on the state standardized assessment. Students who are retained do not simply repeat third grade: they receive 90 minutes of core reading instruction, intensive interventions, progress monitoring, small group instruction, and summer reading camps. There are good cause exemptions for students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities, students who demonstrate proficiency on approved alternative assessments, and students who have received two or more years of intensive intervention and who were previously retained for two years.

Research supports the conclusion that third-grade test-based promotion policies lead to meaningful improvements in average test scores within the third grade, even before retention decisions are made. A study of Florida third graders found that the mere “threat of retention” increased math and reading performance in third grade, while students who were retained in third grade gained significantly in eighth-grade math and reading test scores. The author also found that “the expected later increase in earnings” due to literacy proficiency is greater than the earnings lost due to delayed graduation.

New research from Boston University found that third-grade students repeating third grade under Mississippi’s third-grade test-based promotion requirement attained higher ELA scores over time. By sixth grade, students receiving the extra year of reading help had “substantial and sustained literacy gains.” The report noted that “these literacy gains were especially significant among Black and Hispanic students.”

The oft-cited negative consequences of retention failed to materialize. For instance, the study “did not see a difference (positive or negative) in math scores, absences, or the likelihood of being identified for special education in the sixth grade.” It is encouraging that there were significant achievement gains still present in sixth grade because many previous studies of retention expect gains to fade within two to three years. Many older studies find retention has negative impacts on long-term achievement, but studies with more sophisticated methodologies conclude retention has either no significant effect or a positive effect on long-term achievement. The research on retention’s effects on social and emotional adjustment is, at best, inconclusive, with many studies not finding any negative long-term effects and some even finding positive effects.

The Alaska Reads Act ensures that third-grade students are adequately prepared for fourth grade with test-based promotion requirements. Third-grade students struggling with reading receive intensive interventions during the school year but may still not have caught up by spring. There are several options to demonstrate proficiency, including a proficient score on the state assessment, the spring screener, or an adequate reading portfolio. If a student fails to meet any proficiency requirement, a conversation is triggered between the parent or guardian and the student’s teacher about whether to promote the student to fourth grade. Parents still have the ultimate decision as to whether their student should move to fourth grade, and the research shows the positive benefits of test-based promotion policies for students are substantial and sustained.

This post is the final part of a four-part series detailing the implementation of the Alaska Reads Act. The first, second, and third posts may be found here, here, and here.