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There is little dispute among educators that many kids are not reading as well as they need to be. But there is endless debate over what to do about it. Now, a growing number of states are taking a more hard-line approach. They say third-graders who can't read at grade level will automatically be held back.
As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some believe that strategy will hurt more than it helps.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: To those pushing the idea, it's equal doses of tough and love. You are not doing a kid any favors, they say, by waving him onto fourth grade if he isn't up to snuff on his reading.
TIM TAYLOR: It's essentially just lying to the kid to say that you're there. And I think what we need to do is to a draw line in the sand, and have the fortitude to step up and say this is the right thing for kids.
SMITH: Tim Taylor is with a group of business leaders pushing the idea in Colorado. As educators like to say, third grade is when kids move from learning to read to reading to learn. So if kids don't yet have basic reading skills, Taylor says, they need to stay back.
TAYLOR: It's a gift of time. It is giving the kids the ability to get to the reading levels that they need so that they can be successful moving through their school career.
SMITH: Similar bills are being considered in New Mexico, Iowa and Tennessee, and have recently passed in Oklahoma, Arizona and Indiana.
Advocates point to Florida, where schools started mandatory retentions 10 years ago. Reading scores of kids who repeated third grade went from way below average to well above - impressing many, like New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.
HANNA SKANDERA: That data that I've seen looks pretty darn remarkable. Florida's Hispanic students alone are ahead of 31 other states' total student populations in fourth-grade reading.
DAVID BERLINER: Well, of course, they're a year older. That's the most - that's the stupidest - of course, they're going to do better when they get into fourth grade.
SMITH: David Berliner, Arizona State University professor emeritus, says even in Florida, the gains faded by eighth grade. In the long term, he says, holding kids back tends to do more harm than good.
BERLINER: It's just mean-spirited. If you're willing to spend an extra $10,000 to give the kid another year of schooling, why aren't you willing to put some money into a tutor over the next two years? That's what we ought to do - not leave them back, but get them the resources.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Reading) Cam would see why they...
JOCELYN MARSHALL: OK, let's start back because it seems like here, we started to not look at the first letter in the words.
SMITH: At a third-grade class in Cambridge, Massachusetts, struggling readers get extra help from teachers like Jocelyn Marshall.
MARSHALL: It's very effective, so we're just sort of trying to catch them in every way we can, and give them extra reinforcement. But it can be tough with having, you know, 20 students in a class, and we can't get to that one-on-one with every kid all the time.
SMITH: Marshall says she's seen the downside of promoting kids before they're ready, but she's also seen the problems with keeping kids back. It zaps their self-esteem and, research says, also lowers parents' and teachers' expectations of them.
Nonie Lesaux, professor at Harvard's School of Education, says kids who stay back also end up more likely to drop out.
NONIE LESAUX: Everything we know about retention suggests it's potentially, very traumatic and socially, it's very stigmatizing.
SKANDERA: When we talk about stigma and concerns, illiteracy is the stigma that we need to address.
SMITH: New Mexico's Hanna Skandera says retention alone is not an answer. But when coupled with early intervention and extra instruction, it is an important last resort.
SKANDERA: This is not, you know, a gotcha policy. It's a ensure-our-kids-are- ready-for-success policy.
SMITH: Trouble is, so far, there's no clear answer on whether the policy actually works.
RALPH SMITH: Quite frankly, both sides will overstate what the little bit of research available says.
SMITH: Ralph Smith, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says holding kids back is often seen as easier than developing lots of differentiated learning plans or investing, for example, in summer school.
SMITH: There are many people who are seizing on retention because they are looking for an easy answer to a complicated problem.
SMITH: As another academic put it: This policy flunks kids for failing to learn, but given how widespread the problem is, maybe it's the school that should flunk for failing to teach.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.