These states are rethinking third-grade reading requirements as students struggle through learning loss

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Should states hold back third-graders who can’t read well enough? 

That’s the question Ohio legislators are considering along with legislation that would remove that state’s third-grade reading law. The Buckeye state isn’t alone: Several state houses have recently passed laws concerning holding students back if they can’t read at grade level.

Tennessee’s governor signed a bill last week updating the state’s reading law requirements and making it more likely that students can pass the proficiency test to advance to fourth grade. Michigan’s Legislature in March also removed requirements in the state’s “read-by-three” law requiring schools to retain students who can’t read at grade level. 

The legislation to remove the requirement in Ohio was advanced to the Ohio House of Representatives by the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee last week after several hearings. 

A number of organizations spoke in favor of removing the proficiency requirements, including the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators and the Ohio School Board Association. 

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, told lawmakers in a May 2 hearing that the bill’s current retention requirements harm students.

“I have seen struggling readers transform when they have the right books put into their hands and are given the interventions they need to make the words make sense,” Cropper said. “I have also seen students start to think of themselves as failures and give up when they can’t keep up with their peers and are held back.”

Cropper said that the current requirements hold back over 3,600 Ohio third graders each year and that of those, only 15% who repeated the grade were deemed proficient in reading by the end of the second year. 

One organization, Ohio Excels, spoke against removing the retention component to the law. The organization describes itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit created by leaders of Ohio’s business community.

Lisa A. Gray, president of Ohio Excels, pointed to a study conducted by the Ohio Education Research Center that followed students through seventh grade. 

“Third-grade students who were retained performed better than similar students who originally scored just above the cut score in ELA and math in every grade we could examine, fourth grade through seventh grade,” Gray told lawmakers. “While the gap between retained students and non-retained students decreased each year, the immediate benefits were compelling. In fourth and fifth grade, for instance, the average retained student scores at least one performance level better than a similar non-retained student.”

Gray argued that removing the retention after the learning losses due to pandemic-related school closures could be disastrous. 

“Removing the retention component without ensuring that adequate resources, supports, interventions, transparency, and accountability are in place to support Ohio’s struggling readers will only lead to worse academic outcomes, something our children, families and state do not deserve and cannot afford,” Gray said in her testimony. 

Ohio’s law would expand the years in which students could receive intensive reading interventions through fifth grade. 

Tennessee’s approach was less drastic than removal of the requirement, instead focusing on giving students the opportunity to retake a state-given reading test. Students are also able to pass if they are in the 50th percentile or “approaching” proficiency on the state reading test, according to reporting by The Center Square

Under the bill signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee last week, students can also advance to fourth grade by taking summer school classes. Parents are also able to appeal their student’s retention decisions.

A fiscal analysis of that bill estimated that “approximately 9,000 students in grades K-3 will be retained each year.” The Center Square reported tutoring costs will amount to $12 million.

Michigan’s Democratically-controlled Legislature removed the third-grade reading law’s retention requirement. Lawmakers criticized how they said the law unfairly affected minority students and those in lower-performing districts. 

Several Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the legislation. According to The Center Square’s reporting, Michigan’s State Superintendent Michael Rice told lawmakers that the retention requirements were punitive rather than positive. 

“While we agree with the student reading supports in the read-by-grade-three law and other efforts to improve literacy, we are opposed to the retention requirements in the law,” Rice said during debate in the Michigan House of Representatives. “The read-by-grade-three law spends too much time on justifying why a student should be retained, at the expense of time spent improving the student’s reading ability.”

As some states are ditching the retention requirements, Arkansas recently codified holding students back for failing to read at grade level. The LEARNS Act, signed in March by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, requires that students who have not met third-grade reading standards be held back unless there is a good-cause exemption. 

Over 15 states have requirements that hold back third graders if they can’t pass a proficiency test, but they allow exemptions for English learners or those who can prove proficiency through other means, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit that has tracked legislation related to third-grade retention.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “The Nation’s Report Card,” fourth-grade students nationwide saw a three-percentage point decrease in reading in 2022, as compared to 2019, the last year the assessment was conducted.

Ohio saw a decrease of three percentage points as Michigan witnessed a six-point decline, and Tennessee’s fourth-grade students dropped five percentage points as compared with three years before.

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at

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