Repeating Third Grade Might Give English Learners Academic Advantage

Educators and researchers have questioned the effectiveness of a literacy law enacted in multiple states that requires students to pass a reading test before advancing to fourth grade. While studies have debated the unintended consequences  of grade retention, a new report suggests it might be beneficial for one specific population of students: English language learners.

The study, conducted by researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that immigrant students who repeated third grade became proficient in English in half the time of English Language Learner (ELL) students who directly continued to fourth grade. Additionally, those who repeated third grade were twice as likely to take advanced courses in middle school and three times as likely to take dual credit courses in high school. They also scored higher on state tests.

The large-scale study examined the academic records of 40,000 ELLs across 12 Florida school districts dating back to 2002. Researchers compared the literacy test scores of two groups of ELLs: those who fell just below the threshold of passing and had to repeat the third grade, and those who scored high enough to pass and advance into fourth grade.

Researchers also found that the benefits of grade retention applied primarily to students who were immigrants, not those who are native English speakers. ELL students from wealthier school districts were also more likely to benefit compared to those in low-income districts.

The authors note that added support for ELL students appears to be crucial to their success. Those in the study were required to attend summer classes after failing to pass the literacy exam and, when repeating third grade, had daily, extended reading lessons. They suggest that requiring students to repeat a grade, while costly to schools and stigmatized for students, could help narrow the 18 percent graduation gap between ELLs and their native English-speaking peers.