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Third-Grade Retention Laws: What You Need to Know

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a Glance

  • Many states have laws that require students to repeat third grade if they can’t read at a certain level.

  • These third-grade retention laws differ from state to state.

  • In some states, the law offers exceptions for some students.

Many states have laws that require third graders to be able to read at a certain level in order to move up to fourth grade. These laws are called “third-grade retention laws.” (“Retention” refers to when a student is held back to repeat a grade.)

Here’s what you need to know about these laws.

Retention laws require your child to meet a reading standard.

Retention laws vary from state to state. But they all require your child to meet a reading standard to pass third grade.

Standards explains what your child is expected to be able to do. For example, a reading standard might require that your child be able to sound out words with multiple syllables or read grade-level books fluently.

Each state’s retention law also provides a way of deciding whether a child meets the reading standard. In some states, your child may need to pass a standardized reading test. In others, the law is more flexible—your child may meet a reading standard with an alternate test or by showing a portfolio of her reading work over time.

To learn about the details of the law in your state, you can contact your school or your state’s department of education. Once you have an actual copy of the retention law, it’s a good idea to ask your child’s school to explain it to you. It can also be helpful to reach out to your state’s Parent Training and Information Center for information.

There may be exceptions to your state’s retention law.

In some cases, a student may be able to advance to fourth grade even if she hasn’t met the reading standard in her state. Depending on the state, there may be exceptions for the following:

  • Students with an ( )

  • Students with a

  • Students who participate in summer school programs

  • Students in special reading programs at school

You’ll have look at your state’s law to know which exceptions may apply to your child.

Retention laws have been controversial.

There’s been a lot of disagreement about retention laws. It’s helpful to understand why.

Third grade is a pivotal year for many students. Up until then, students generally work on basic reading skills—they learn to read. But in fourth grade and after, reading becomes the way to master other school subjects, like history or science—they read to learn.

Research shows that children who don’t read well in third grade are at risk of falling behind or not graduating from high school. For instance, a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who weren’t reading well in third grade were four times as likely to drop out of high school. They also had difficulty later in life when they tried to go to college or get a job.

States created third-grade retention laws to try to ensure that every child can read. But critics argue that making a struggling reader repeat a grade is not a good solution. Many experts say that retention can stigmatize a child and hurt her self-confidence. And some people have been concerned about retention laws that have hinged too much on a single standardized test or measure.

Some retention laws now protect your child.

The controversy over retention laws has led to changes. Organizations like the Learning Disabilities Association of America, an Understood founding partner, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Understood’s founding partner, have pushed to make retention a last resort.

As a result, a number of states now require some or all of the following before making a student repeat a grade:

  • Use of evidence-based reading programs, including and multisensory instruction

  • Notices to parents as soon as a school becomes aware of a child’s reading issues

  • Outreach to families to engage parents in helping kids learn to read

Some states have also added early screening, , and extra services to help young kids read.

These changes may give parents more opportunities to help their kids learn to read well before retention becomes an issue. And many of these laws now also provide intensive intervention during the repeated year.

If you’re concerned about a retention law, here are some questions you may want to ask your school:

  • How will the school screen my child for reading issues?

  • What is the school’s plan to help my child stay on track?

  • What specific strategies is the school using to help my child meet the reading standard?

  • What reading services and support are available to my child?

  • What are the different ways (other than a standardized test) my child can show that she meets the reading standard?

  • If my child repeats a grade, how will she be taught differently during the repeated year?

  • If a retention law doesn’t apply to my child because she has an IEP, how will the school ensure that she learns to read?

Third-grade retention laws can have a big impact on your child. Get expert advice on what to do if your child’s school says she needs to repeat third grade. It’s also useful to understand the pros and cons of repeating a grade.

Key Takeaways

  • It may be helpful to get a copy of your state’s retention law and ask the school to explain it.

  • Depending on the state, students with IEPs or 504 plans may be able to move on to fourth grade without meeting the reading standard.

  • Some retention laws include protections to help struggling kids long before third grade.

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