The ‘r’ word having positive impact in Mississippi

Grade retention remains a controversial policy, with the debate focusing on whether or not it is effective over time and actually results in positive achievement and adjustment outcomes.

In Mississippi, the state holds students back in third grade if they can’t read at grade level. While the state has posted impressive fourth-grade reading scores on national assessments, and has become a model other states, including Minnesota, have looked to for improving early literacy, its use of grade retention has drawn criticism.

Substantially higher reading scores

But a new analysis by researchers at Boston University shows a positive impact of Mississippi’s retention model on the retained students, writes Todd Collins at the Fordham Institute.

The results are stunning: In sixth grade, three years after the intervention, retained students outperform similar students by 1.2 standard deviations (a 0.8 effect size is generally considered “large”), with no measurable impact on student absenteeism or special education classification, negative indicators sometimes associated with retention.

In short, it shows a very strong positive impact of retention, at least through sixth grade, with no associated negative effects. 

As Collins continues, Mississippi’s retention policy is not just “repeating the grade.”

First, by law, retained students must receive a minimum of ninety minutes in reading instruction based on the science of reading and intensive interventions with progress monitoring, among other supports. The retention treatment is designed to specifically address their needs.

Second, retention plays a key role in aligning the system’s adults — teachers, parents, administrators — around meeting the needs of the students. If we want the students to do better, we need to improve the performance of the adults. As Kymyona Burk, the former Mississippi State Literacy Director, has described, Mississippi’s comprehensive literacy policy includes training all primary grade teachers and their administrators; state-provided literacy coaches, deployed directly to high-need schools; changes in teacher preparation programs; and adoption of new instructional materials — all centered around the science of reading, including the building of foundational skills.

Black and Hispanic students particularly impacted

The substantial and sustained improvement in literacy outcomes was particularly noticeable among Mississippi’s black and Hispanic students. As I have written before, Mississippi black and Hispanic students outperform Minnesota black and Hispanic students on nearly all national tests (Minnesota’s eighth-grade black students most recently outperformed Mississippi’s in math).

Minnesota can do more

Minnesota’s reading scores on national assessments are the lowest they have been since the 1990s. The legislature did dedicate $3 million during the 2021 legislative session to provide educators training in the science of reading through the same program Mississippi has invested in, but not every early elementary teacher or literacy instructor was able to participate. During the 2022 session, an education provision for more of this training was offered by Senate Republicans but was rejected by Democrats and Gov. Tim Walz.

A K-3 literacy bill introduced by Rep. Kristin Robbins in January includes several promising provisions similar to what’s used in Mississippi to ensure Minnesota students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. Requiring evidence-based literacy instruction, dyslexia screening, reading improvement plans, staff development and other systems of support for educators, to name a few, are in the bill. School sites that provide science-based reading and evidence-based literacy instruction and improve students’ reading skills would be monetarily rewarded. There is balance between focusing on the struggling students and accountability for the adults involved. The bill is currently awaiting a committee hearing.

As of spring 2022 state test results, nearly 52 percent of Minnesota third graders can’t read at grade level, continuing a downward trend in reading proficiency that existed pre-COVID.