Public Education Matters

Ohio lawmakers have the chance to correct a major flaw with the state's so-called Third Grade Reading Guarantee by ending the requirement that students who don't achieve a cut score on one high-stakes test be held back in the 3rd grade. The State Board of Education is set to consider a resolution supporting that change at its November meeting. On this episode, Furman University professor Dr. Paul Thomas shares his research findings that show mandatory retention is ineffective and disproportionately harms students of color.

Show Notes

The Case Against Mandatory Retention Under the 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee - Season 3, Episode 9
Ohio lawmakers have the chance to correct a major flaw with the state's so-called Third Grade Reading Guarantee by ending the requirement that students who don't achieve a cut score on one high-stakes test be held back in the 3rd grade. The State Board of Education is set to consider a resolution supporting that change at its November meeting. On this episode, Furman University professor Dr. Paul Thomas shares his research findings that show mandatory retention is ineffective and disproportionately harms students of color.
SUBSCRIBE | Click here to subscribe to Education Matters on Apple Podcasts or click here to subscribe on Google podcasts so you don't miss a thing. And don't forget you can listen to all of the previous episodes anytime on your favorite podcast platform, or by clicking here.

To read Dr. Thomas' white paper, "A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy," click here.

WATCH | Click here to watch the full October 10th press event with OEA President Scott DiMauro, Dr. Paul Thomas, State Board of Education member Dr. Christina Collins, HB 497 joint sponsor Rep. Gayle Manning, and Campbell Education Association member Karen Carney.

Featured Education Matters guest: 
Connect with OEA:
About us:
  • The Ohio Education Association represents about 120,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio’s schools, colleges, and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio’s children. OEA members provide professional services to benefit students, schools, and the public in virtually every position needed to run Ohio’s schools.
  • Education Matters host Katie Olmsted serves as Media Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. She joined OEA in May, 2020, after a ten-year career as a television reporter, anchor, and producer. Katie comes from a family of educators and is passionate about telling educators' stories and advocating for Ohio's students. She lives in Central Ohio with her husband and two young children.
This episode was recorded on October 17, 2022.

What is Public Education Matters?

Ohio's public schools serve 1.6 million children - 90 percent of students in the state! What happens in the classroom has impacts far beyond the walls of the K-12 school building or higher ed lecture hall. So, on behalf of the 120,000 members of the Ohio Education Association, we're taking a deeper dive into some of the many education issues facing our students, educators, and communities. Originally launched in 2021 as Education Matters, Public Education Matters is your source for insightful conversations with the people who shape the education landscape in Ohio. Have a topic you'd like to hear about on Public Education Matters? Email us at

Intro 0:07
This is education matters brought to you by the Ohio Education Association.

Katie Olmsted 0:15
Welcome back to Education Matters, your source for insightful conversations about the big issues facing Ohio schools. Issues like whether one high stakes standardized test score should determine a child's future.

Karen Carney 0:29
Unfortunately, that third grade reading guarantee and that retention piece that goes with it is something that has just caused nightmares all around. My first year in third grade I heard over her two little girls talking about oh my god, you know that if we don't pass this test, they don't let us go to fourth grade. No eight, nine year olds should have to deal with anything as stressful as something like that.

Katie Olmsted 0:53
Karen Carney teaches in a small urban district in Campbell, Ohio. She shared that perspective as part of a press event with OEA in mid October, just days before a State Board of Education committee unanimously voted to move forward with a resolution calling on Ohio's General Assembly to end mandatory retention under the so-called third grade reading guarantee. That resolution will come up for a vote by the full state board of education at its November meeting. And the Ohio Senate has until the end of this year to vote on the legislation in question House Bill 497, which was passed in the Ohio House over the summer. It would leave the decision about whether to hold a student back in the third grade to educators, parents and administrators, removing the legal requirement to retain students who don't hit a certain cut score on the third grade English Language Arts Assessment. Right now, that test is given twice every year taking important time away from teaching and learning. And the results of the spring test -- One test on one day in a child's life -- by law, determine whether a child can move forward to the fourth grade with their peers. Dr. Paul Thomas, an education professor at Furman University and author of a white paper called "A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy" says mandatory retention is the wrong answer. He joined OEA for the press event in October and later joined us again to discuss his research for this episode of Education Matters.

Katie Olmsted 2:26
Dr. Thomas, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Let's have that big bird's eye view. What has your research shown when it comes to mandatory retention, especially here in Ohio under the third grade reading guarantee?

Dr. Paul Thomas 2:41
So grade retention became a popular reading policy in the early 2000s. And most people refer to it as sort of the Florida model. And it had some momentum in the in the 2000s, but kind of I think stalled because the research showed that you could raise reading scores in the third and fourth grade along with retention policy. But the bad news was those apparent gains disappeared by middle school. About 2013, and especially in the last four years, it has you know, been reenergized, grade retention, with the science of reading movement. And what's kind of interesting, I think, from a policy standpoint is you're getting the same pattern of some states that are improving, apparently, test scores also have adopted grade retention, but also have adopted what many people are calling it calling the science of reading. Ironically, there is no research showing that grade retention is actually raising the scores. But there's decades, literally four or five decades of research that grade retention is very harmful to children.

Katie Olmsted 4:13
In what ways is grade retention harmful to children?

Dr. Paul Thomas 4:17
I would say the big picture again to be as broad as possible is that there -- I've never seen research that really shows any positive correlations with grade retention. But a large amount of this of the research shows that it correlates strongly with things like dropping out of school, and that's the most powerful one.
At a smaller kind of granular level. grade retention disproportionately impacts what I can call the vulnerable populations of students. So in a state like Mississippi 70% of the students retained are black, and in state like Ohio A 30 to 40, excuse me, 40 to 50% of students who are retained our black grade retention also significantly disproportionately impact students living in poverty. So, for someone like me, the one reason I advocate against reading of excuse me grade retention is because of that disproportionate impact, which I think is the most important kind of subset of that it's just, there's nothing good about grade retention. Again, I would say in the general consensus, we should always point out that there are, of course, individual cases where grade retention may be a good thing. I would say it should be really, really early. And it should be, you know, a consensus among parents and educators, I still am fairly skeptical that it's a good thing to do. But we're talking about in general as a mandatory policy.

Katie Olmsted 5:56
And that's OEA's position as well, that we're not necessarily against retention, if it's necessary. But certainly that should be a decision made by the educators who know these students best who see them day in and day out their parents, the administrators, not a politician in Columbus who doesn't have classroom experience, putting out a punitive measure because of a child's score on one day of one test.

Dr. Paul Thomas 6:23
Right. And I think we can't stress enough that grade retention is not reading policy. It is a form of punishment. I think the concept behind that is if you if you make students afraid they will be moved to the next grade with their friends, that somehow they'll work harder, which is assuming that their struggles with reading are purely in the individual child, which I'm sorry, is nonsense. There are dozens of reasons that students struggle with achievement. Whether it's reading or not. A lot of it, 60 to 80%, of that struggle is outside the school. There's decades of research that most measurable learning in students is far more correlated with out of school factors than in school factors.

Katie Olmsted 7:20
Karen Carney, an OEA member who teaches in Campbell, Ohio, in the recent press event with you and OEA President Scott DiMauro and Representative Gayle Manning and Dr. Christina Collins from the State Board of Education. She gave an example of of hearing students talk about the pressure they felt. She call it wearing a scarlet letter for the kids who were retained. Did it surprise you to hear that perspective from a classroom teacher?

Dr. Paul Thomas 7:50
No, I think that's the perfect perspective. I'd say two of my flaws as an educators, is I'm very student centered. And I'm also very teacher centered. I've been a teacher for, you know, across five decades. And I always defaulted to individual students and individual student needs. And I think we tend to, especially at the sort of political and public level, we think of "students," plural

Katie Olmsted 8:18
A monolith of students.

Dr. Paul Thomas 8:22
Yes, exactly. I have always seen individual students, and I thought her stories of these individual students were vivid and heartbreaking. And I think we have to consider that because, again, even the research that shows that grade retention results and higher test scores, those researchers admit, they have not teased out what aspects help the grades increase. So the retention itself has never been proven to be the reason in other words, that sort of threat of punishment, has never been shown -- it's very likely the increased scores are other elements. And the ones I'm most concerned about is when you retain students, you change the population of students being tested. So if you remove the students who are likely to score lower than your average scores are going to go up. And if you re introduce students to a population who are biologically one year older, you're skewing the data. They are also. So while there's kind of an absence of that kind of research, I wish we had research that could clarify this. My professional opinion has always been that grade retention skews the data, it doesn't change actual achievement.

Katie Olmsted 9:57
Well, and there's a call from people who are opposed to House Bill 497 - That's the the bill in the General Assembly this year, that would end mandatory retention under the third grade reading guarantee, but keep all of the other elements focusing on literacy. Today is October 17. I just read an editorial from a paper here in Ohio. That is saying that if you don't have the retention piece, there is no incentive, basically, for anybody to focus on literacy in the third grade. What is your response to that?

Dr. Paul Thomas 10:36
That's a I would say that's an old and very harmful belief system that goes back to the early 1980s. When we started the entire accountability movement. Under the Reagan administration, A Nation at Risk was released, and several years later, scholars exposed that that was a misleading report that had ulterior motives. Primarily Reagan was trying to force "school choice" onto the country. That was he stated that there are people in the room who heard him say that,

Katie Olmsted 11:11
Wow, that sounds familiar to today, doesn't it?

Dr. Paul Thomas 11:13
Yes, exactly. So I think it's this idea that teachers and students aren't motivated, there's - it's not based in reality, it's based in a a very negative belief system that somehow that if you don't hold people accountable that they won't try. I would say those people have never been in a room of kindergarteners and first graders. This is not a very funny joke. But one that I've I've used for many years, because I taught high school. I've always noticed that kindergarten, first and second grade kids all want to learn to read. It's, it's just this compelling, wonderful thing. By the time they're in high school, very few of them want to read. And my argument has always been what do they have in common, very bad literacy instruction in public schools. And the bad to me is that we make them hate reading because we focus on the wrong things. We have classrooms filled with students who want to read, we have teachers who spend their lives wanting to teach people to read, there are things getting in the way, including social factors, hunger, lack of access to health care, many students don't know where they're going to sleep from one day to the next. But policy is another problem. Too many of the mandates are focusing on these measurable outcomes, and not on sort of the real people, the children and the teachers who are in the room.

Katie Olmsted 12:47
So what is the solution? Especially here in Ohio. When this episode is published next week, the State Board of Education is set to consider a resolution about whether to support asking the General Assembly to pass House Bill 497 and end mandatory retention under the third grade reading guarantee, there's certainly going to be a lot of discussion about what our students actually need. In your expert opinion, if mandatory retention isn't it, what is it?

Dr. Paul Thomas 13:15
I've always thought that policy and you know, sort of the government level should be funding and a certain kind of oversight. And I would say it's more I'm an advocate for transparency as in as opposed to accountability. And we're, I think we've been making a mistake my entire career is we need to focus on teaching and learning conditions. So we need this, there's been decades of research of our vulnerable students, minoritized students, students in poverty, students who are acquiring multiple languages, special needs students, disproportionately sit in classrooms that are high student-teacher ratio, and low teacher experience and certification. Those two things can be solved by policy. Students who are struggling to read should be guaranteed small class sizes and experienced certified teachers. That's not even difficult to do. The reason we don't do it is because that will upset the parents of students who are doing well. And those students and advanced placement courses and all sorts of gifted and talented programs happen to be sitting in small classrooms with low student teacher ratios with very certified and very experienced teachers, and we've got it backwards. We need to assure and guarantee those experiences - again, it's teaching and learning conditions. focus on those.

Katie Olmsted 14:58
But why is it an either or thing? Couldn't we do that for all students as a policy? Make sure that you're in manageable class sizes with highly qualified, certified educators?

Dr. Paul Thomas 15:09
I would say bingo. Yes, I would say that should be our agenda, we should, all students should have that opportunity. What upsets me is that, you know, middle class and upper class students already get that. And, and then, to be frank, very bright students can - and universities do this all the time - very bright students can sit in auditoriums with 300 other people and do well. And we don't, you know, that's not a great thing. My university doesn't do. That we have small classes. And we have, you know, we're very selective. And we still, you know, we market ourselves with small classes, and I've seen it for 20 something years there. Students thrive in those low, you know, professor/student ratios. I agree with you. But if we're going to have to choose, we're doing the wrong thing, where we're allowing students who are thriving to have the learning and teaching conditions that our struggling students need, not just deserve, but they need it.

Katie Olmsted 16:12
Getting a little off topic with House Bill 497, but all roads really do lead back to school funding, especially here in Ohio, the Fair School Funding Plan model was our first constitutional school funding system, passed in the last state budget. It is actually taking into account the cost of educating an individual child, so children with more expensive needs, that is factored into the formula for how much the state should provide for each child. So that was a huge win. However, it was only funded for that one budget cycle. So We're once again heading into the new year, once again, begging lawmakers to to do the right thing and make sure that our students have the funding that they need to receive the high quality education that every student deserves. That was a little off topic. But I think it's worth putting in there that - Ohio, the things we have going pretty much all the time our fights over school funding and fights over sort of punitive policies that are are not helpful.

Dr. Paul Thomas 17:16
Yes, of course

Katie Olmsted 17:17
Does that surprise you at all based on what you have seen in your research?

Dr. Paul Thomas 17:20
No, I mean, sadly, one of the one of the flaws of democracy is some things are politically politically sexy to do and some things are not politically sexy to do. And there is an inversely proportional relationship there to what we need to do. And honestly, I've done national work against grade retention. And I get very negative angry responses from the public who they can only think in binaries, they can only think punish kids who don't achieve or just give them the next grade. And that's a very American and attitude that I don't agree with. Nobody's giving anybody anything. We're saying, if a student is identified through testing to be struggling as a reader, and they pass the grade, doing all the coursework, then the next year, make sure we attend to those students. Don't hold them back. Teach them. And I also think we just need to be more patient. The the urgency about third grade has always kind of baffled me. We certainly can spend a couple more years making sure those students and again, find it make the teaching and learning conditions, ones that both the students and the teachers can be successful. And I just don't think that sounds that compelling to the public, which regretfully, something like grade retention taps into a belief system.

Katie Olmsted 18:49
Well, and let me tell you even just writing headlines for press releases about mandatory grade retention, trying to make that a sexy public issue... This is something obviously that educators care very deeply about. This is something that people who are in the public education system care very deeply about, people who have seen firsthand what this does to kids. If there's anything you could say to the wider public, the people we kind of have trouble reaching with this messaging, what would you tell them?

Dr. Paul Thomas 19:16
I'll try to mention to people all the time, there's never been a decade in the United States that we didn't think we were failing reading. That tells me something. I keep, I've been trying to say in the last year or so we just need to do something different. We've tried grade retention for decades. We're still unhappy. We've tried standards and standardized testing for decades. We're still unhappy. One thing we have not tried is mandatory, low student teacher ratios; mandatory, experienced and well certified teachers teaching those students. So let's just try something different because we're in a hole and we just keep digging in. It's been the same hole since you know, the early 1900s regretfully.

Katie Olmsted 20:05
Well, Dr. Thomas, thank you so much for sitting down with us and explaining what you found in your research and sort of the path ahead if we choose to take it.

Dr. Paul Thomas 20:14
Thank you very much.

Katie Olmsted 20:17
If you'd like to read Dr. Thomas's work on grade retention as reading policy for yourself, or if you'd like to watch the full press event about this issue that took place October 10, you can find the links to both of those things in the show notes for this episode. You can also keep up to date on all of OEA's legislative advocacy work by connecting with us on social media. We're at @OhioEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And if you'd like to share your thoughts on the podcast, or your ideas for future episodes, please email me at Until next time, stay well.

Transcribed by