Whether or not a student can read in the early grades is a clear indicator of future success. Schools should not keep sending kids onto the next grade if they lack basic reading skills. This “social promotion” often does more harm than good.

As the state Legislature debates House Bill 4822 and strategies to advance early literacy, the Battle Creek Enquirer’s editors have laid down a strong claim. Their March 10 editorial argued against any use of the strategy of third-grade retention (holding back students) —  presumably out of a desire to protect kids. To follow their recommended course, though, would eliminate an approach that promises to help many of Michigan’s neediest students.

Clearly, the decision to have a struggling reader repeat third grade should not be made lightly or without considering a student’s unique situation. The evidence for focused retention strategies, though, points toward real benefits for those students who arrive at school lacking some of the building blocks of literacy. These students need some extra time to catch up.

The critical importance of becoming proficient by the end of third grade is well understood. According to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, missing that benchmark increases the chances a student will fail to graduate on time — fourfold.

Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, the state of Florida took the lead in pioneering a slate of reforms to address the challenge. Michigan policymakers would be wise to take heed.

One thing Florida does is prohibit third-graders who score in the lowest level on the state reading test from automatically advancing to the next grade. Struggling readers get several opportunities to pass the test and are provided alternative ways of showing that they meet the basic reading standard. Specific exemptions are allowed for students with disabilities, newer English Language Learners, and those who have already been held back twice.

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Struggling Florida readers receive interventions both before the end of third grade and during the remedial year, including summer reading camps and 90-minute daily periods of tutoring, guided by scientifically based reading instruction. The Sunshine State has invested heavily in disseminating SBRI principles and techniques to its teachers. That’s significant because a major 2014 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality found most of the nation’s education schools do not adequately equip elementary teachers in this area.

Tracking two comparable groups of Florida students, a 2006 study showed that those who were retained made measurable progress in reading skills for the first two years, while students experiencing social promotion fell further behind. According to a later analysis by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, Florida’s policy led to “large positive effects on achievement” and decreased a student’s likelihood for future retention (though like most tested education interventions, the advantage eventually fades).

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress bring the challenge closer to home. Over the past 12 years, Michigan’s fourth-grade reading scores have slipped below the national average, while Florida’s scores have soared and plateaued. Today, Florida’s scores in fourth-grade reading just for low-income students are higher than Michigan’s overall average reading scores, counting both low-income and non-low-income students.

To bolster its case for social promotion, the Enquirer editorial cites two less relevant pieces of research. The first, a brief summary from the National Association of School Psychologists, predates the Florida program and includes important caveats about the value of remedial strategies. The second explores a data set of students from the 1970s and 1980s, finding broad harms caused by student retention. Its conclusions clash with rigorous academic research on specific programs targeted at struggling low-income elementary students in Chicago and New York City.

The Enquirer suggests that a host of alternatives to retention, including large-scale class size reduction and preschool programs, would be better. Yet the best evidence for each indicates very little or no benefit in return for large sums of taxpayer expenditures.

Third-grade retention is not a magical cure-all that will make all kids competent lifetime readers. But Florida’s example shows that far more Michigan students stand to benefit if we put aside warm feelings about social promotion.