MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend some time this weekend talking about third grade. Alabama recently became the 19th state to ratchet up expectations for third-graders. If they perform poorly on reading tests, they may be held back. This policy is called mandatory retention. Alexandra Starr reports from Florida, the first state to adopt the policy 17 years ago, where it remains controversial.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Deborah Perez teaches second grade at Mater Academy Elementary school outside Miami.
DEBORAH PEREZ: Take out your reading response journals and write a date on top.
STARR: Perez's class is reading a biography of former basketball star Michael Jordan. It ends when he scores the winning basket in a high-stakes game.
PEREZ: Two points. The game was over. Michael's team had won.
STARR: These students are a year away from their own high-stakes test. If they don't show they're proficient in reading, they're supposed to repeat third grade. Last year, almost 18,000 third-graders were held back in Florida. Perez says the possibility of retention can push students in a good way.
PEREZ: It's stressful on them, but I feel like they need that pressure sometimes.
STARR: Retention was part of a packet of reforms introduced by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Patricia Levesque served as his chief of staff and is now CEO of Bush's education foundation, ExcelinEd. She points out third grade is an important milestone. That year, many kids are still learning to read.
PATRICIA LEVESQUE: But we know that there's a switch when you get to fourth grade. And starting in fourth grade, you have to read in order to learn.
STARR: Kids who are not proficient readers in fourth grade are four times more likely not to graduate from high school on time. To improve literacy rates in early grades, Florida allocated millions of dollars for reading coaches. And it requires kids who are poor readers to repeat the grade. Levesque says this was vital.
LEVESQUE: Accountability actually works.
STARR: Marty West is an education professor at Harvard. He points out the Florida policy isn't as draconian as it might sound. English-language learners and kids with special needs can be exempted. Students can also assemble a portfolio of work to show they shouldn't be held back.
MARTY WEST: As a result, fewer than half of students not meeting the promotion standard on the state test in Florida are actually retained.
STARR: They are disproportionately African American boys. West did find kids who repeat the grade perform better in reading and math than other students who tested poorly but were promoted. Those benefits, though, dissipate.
WEST: Having been retained makes students in Florida no more or less likely to graduate from high school.
STARR: In a strange way, that can be seen in a positive light because multiple studies have found flunking a grade makes it much more likely a student won't graduate from high school. The Florida policy doesn't seem to have that effect. But repeating a grade can damage a child's self-esteem. Karla Hernandez-Mats is part of the opt out movement in Florida. It advocates kids sit out high-stakes exams.
KARLA HERNANDEZ-MATS: I am a believer of accountability, but I don't believe in the high-stakes testing.
STARR: Hernandez-Mats is president of the Miami-Dade teachers union, But she's not speaking on the organization's behalf. She says testing season triggered some of her middle school students even years after high-stakes exams.
HERNANDEZ-MATS: I had students vomit in class. I had students that would cry in class.
STARR: Mandatory retention is spreading. The U.S. Department of Education says next year more than a million third-graders nationwide will be taking exams that could determine whether they are held back a year. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in Miami.
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