Early Grade Literacy: Is Third Grade Retention Effective?

In 2023, 14 governors noted the importance of literacy in their State of the State addresses. Ten governors specifically highlighted efforts to improve early grade literacy for kindergarten through third grade students. While this is not a new issue, recent National Assessment for Educational Progress reports have shown declining reading scores nationwide and re-elevated it.  

Third grade retention is often discussed as a policy option to improve early grade literacy. A preliminary update to our 50-State Comparison found that 13 states plus the District of Columbia require retention for third grade students who are not reading proficiently, and 13 states allow retention decisions at the local level. Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia are implementing retention laws in the coming years, and Michigan repealed its law, effective March 2024. Finally, a bill passed one chamber in the Ohio Legislature that would eliminate third grade retention requirements. 

Policymakers may consider studies on third grade retention policies and outcomes from select states to support early grade literacy. Over the past three decades, research regarding grade retention has been mixed. A few studies point to positive effects in the short run, but most studies indicate that benefits fade over time when not paired with significant academic interventions. Studies also highlight how retention disproportionately affects students of color.  

Meta-Analyses and Select Individual Studies 

    • A 2021 meta-analysis from The Education Trust highlights long-term negative effects, including both academic and social and emotional impacts. The report provides evidence that grade retention is only effective over the long term when paired with significant additional resources, and that there are more effective and less costly options to support unfinished learning. 
    • A 2009 meta-analysis reviewed 22 studies on grade retention and academic outcomes published between 1990-2007. This research looked closely at study design and quality, and found fewer negative consequences of retention, but little support for the policy. The report offered a similar conclusion to the 2021 meta-analysis. The authors noted that retention policies are seldom paired with other student supports. 
    • A 2018 study found that retention in elementary school grades increased students’ odds of dropping out of high school; the effects were strongest among Black and Hispanic girls.   
    • A 2012 study compared first graders who were retained versus those who were promoted and found that those retained demonstrated a one-year “boost” in achievement, but effects fully disappeared by the end of fifth grade.  

Outcomes From Select States With Retention Laws 

    • Indiana. A recent study looked at state data from the 2011 – 12 to 2016 – 17 school year and found initially significant benefits for English language arts and math that carry through middle school and no evidence of grade retention impacts on student attendance or disciplinary incidents. Research was not conducted for this cohort beyond middle school. 
    • A 2017 study in Florida found that retained third graders initially had strong math and reading outcomes, but these were statistically insignificant within five years when compared to their same-age peers. A 2020 study of English learners found that third grade retention, coupled with instructional support, substantially improved English skills, doubled the likelihood of taking an advanced math or science course in middle school and tripled the likelihood of taking college credit-bearing courses in high school. Negative outcomes included increased likelihood of severe disciplinary incidents in the first year after retention. The authors note that the positive outcomes capture the combined effect of retention and instructional support and may not be generalizable to other retention systems. 
    • An evaluation of 2021-22 school year retention data in Michigan indicates substantial disparities in retention connected to race and household income levels. Interviews with principals and teachers indicated that large percentages felt that the retention process was burdensome and small percentages felt that it was an effective intervention.  
    • Mississippi. A 2023 study on third grade retention found positive impacts for English language arts at sixth grade, but no effect for math, absences or special education identification. It is important to note that this study does not include data beyond sixth grade. The study reflects a test-based promotion policy adopted in 2013; the state has since amended the Literacy Based Promotion Act to include a more stringent testing requirement and additional interventions. 

While the research is mixed, a through line in the findings suggests that additional academic supports play a strong role in positive outcomes. We anticipate early literacy policy frameworks focused on the science of reading to be a trending topic during governors’ 2024 State of the State addresses. Make sure you bookmark this page to stay informed on all 2024 education priorities. 

Author profile

Erin Whinnery

Erin Whinnery

Senior Project Manager at Education Commission of the States | ewhinnery@ecs.org

As a senior project manager, Erin supports the foundational research services at Education Commission of the States and has a particular interest in the areas of postsecondary access and success. Before joining the organization, Erin earned her master's degree in higher education administration from the University of Denver and a bachelor's degree in English from Boston College. On weekends, Erin is an amateur crafter and quilter.

Author profile

Matt Weyer

Matt Weyer

Policy Director at Education Commission of the States | mweyer@ecs.org

As a policy director, Matt focuses on early learning issues. Prior to joining the Education Commission of the States, Matt worked for over four years covering early learning issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, earned his doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Denver and was a kindergarten teacher in a bilingual classroom for Denver Public Schools. When Matt is not working, he can be found snowboarding or trail running in beautiful Colorado.

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