“The data” says 3rd grade retention is academic fraud; basic humanity says it’s barbaric child abuse.

Run a thought experiment with me.

Imagine if Kelli Stargel and Richard Corcoran singled out 8-year-olds who score lower on standardized reading tests than their peers. Imagine they ordered local educators to line up these 8-year-olds in the streets; and then, as punishment or motivation, they ordered these educators to kick those children in the teeth with steel-toed boots.

Do you think this would work? Would it improve the test taking performance of those 8-year-olds? Do  you think this would make for effective academic policy?

Now imagine Stargel and Corcoran were told, repeatedly, by multiple studies, that kicking children in the teeth with steel-toed boots is, in fact, harmful to those children. And yet, they persisted. Imagine they spent $587 million-plus of your tax money on the steel-toed boots. Would you think that violence against children was tax money and effort and humanity well spent? How would you react as a citizen?

It’s actually worse than that

This analogy sounds ridiculous, of course. Even Stargel and Corcoran and Florida would never do something this academically fraudulent and morally barbaric.

No, in truth they do something worse: Florida’s barbaric and fraudulent 3rd grade retention law. And not only Stargel and Corcoran. Every single legislator who voted for it and every state educrat who has collected a paycheck since 2003 is complicit in human horror.

I’ve always despised this law for its obvious human harm. All data says, unambiguously, that forcibly removing children from their age cohort for academic reasons (as opposed to kindergarten age reasons) puts their graduation and life outcomes in jeopardy. It is psychic violence, wreaking lasting harm on the human development of children. You can check out this essay from education writer Peter Greene for a generalized rundown of the 3rd grade retention literature.

But what really stuck me about Greene’s essay is a 2016 Florida study that goes a step further. It shows the retention law, quite simply, does the opposite of even its stated academic intent. In addition to the human harm, third grade retention because of reading scores actually makes retained children worse test performers over time than they would otherwise be. Comparable children not retained scored higher.

“7 years after retention, 94% of the retained group remained below proficiency”

Here’s a summary of the finding of that study. Please read it. Notice all the previous studies, too.

In 2003-2004 approximately 23,000 third graders were retained in Florida under the third grade retention mandate outlined in the A+ Plan. Researchers in previous studies found students who were retained faced difficulty in catching up to their peers, achieving academically, and obtaining a high school diploma (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2005; Andrew, 2014; Fine & Davis, 2003; Jimerson, 1999; Moser, West & Hughes, 2012; Nagaoka, 2005; and Ou & Reynolds, 2010).

In a recent study, Jasper, Carter, Triscari and Valesky (2016) evaluated longitudinal data to determine if the A+ plan was effective in helping students achieve on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT and acquire a standard high school diploma. In the study, researchers tracked a cohort of retained third grade students from a large southwest Florida school district. Reading assessment data was evaluated for the Grade 3 Reading FCAT. Then researchers evaluated those same students’ scores on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT. The scores were then compared. Researchers Also compared that same data for a similarly non-retained group (the control group), who scored at a level 1 but who were not retained. Graduation status and diploma acquisition for both groups was also compared. This is what researchers found:

  • 93% of the retained group in the study remained below a level 3 on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT. In addition, 67% remained at a level one on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT.
  • 41% of the retained students did not graduate with a standard high school diploma.
  • The non-retained group were 14.7% more likely to graduate with a standard diploma than the retained group.
  • Between 2003-2013, it cost Florida tax payers approximately $587 million FTE funding for the retained students.
  • Approximately 6% of white students were retained while 20% of nonwhite students were retained. Of the students retained in 2003-2004, 69.8% were on free or reduced price lunch.
  • There was a statistically significant difference between retained students and nonretained students regarding Grade 10 Reading FCAT mean scale scores (.000). There was also a statistically significant difference between ethnicity and Grade 10 Reading FCAT scores (.003).

…In 2013, 7 years after retention, 94% of the retained group remained below proficiency.

Permanent human damage based on academic fraud

Again, let’s think this through together.

Kicking an 8-year-old child in the teeth with steel-toed boots is an event the 8-year-old experiences once. You’ll probably knock out some teeth and set them to bleeding and screaming in pain and confusion. Why would this adult, whom I love and trust, destroy my face? But dentistry can fix the teeth; ongoing love can address the abusive horror. Children are resilient in recovering from moments.

But Stargel and Corcoran’s version of kicking 8-year-olds in the teeth with steel-toed boots doesn’t end. Stargel and Corcoran’s barbaric third-grade retention laws rip vulnerable children away from their friends and their age cohort for negative academic benefit. They tell our most vulnerable 8-year-olds that they are failures, not worthy of their peers. They pretend that humans can earn the right to age; and that you can stop time. They convert what should be a nurturing space, a school with loving and supportive adults, into a mental charnel house for our most vulnerable 8-year-olds.

Today, we all agree (including the real governor, Casey DeSantis) that school-aged children face a crisis of mental health suffering. Youth suicide is on the rise. And yet Stargel and Corcoran almost certainly kill children over time with a third grade retention law that provides negative academic benefit.  I have a hard time even characterizing what kind of personality allows that. The only possible excuse is that they don’t know. But they know.

Raining mental violence on 8-year-olds to own the 4th grade NAEP — and only the 4th grade NAEP.

While there is no excuse to knowingly abuse children; Florida’s educrat political/industrial complex does  have a clear reason for doing so: the 4th grade NAEP test.

This is the national “proficiency” test that is used to compare states to each other on a scoreboard. It’s taken every two years in the 4th and 8th grades, based on a sample of kids. And it was last taken in 12th grade in 2013. Thus, the NAEP doesn’t test the same children to track individual progress or growth. Like Florida, it has no interest in the experienced lives or achievement of individual children. It cares only about how it can aggregate children as data into a scoreboard to sell on its “national report card.”

Florida’s third grade retention laws have two great effects on Florida’s 4th grade NAEP-taking population: 1) It subtracts a huge number of third graders likely to score poorly on the 4th grade test 2) It makes sure that those same children, a year later, have been through another year of third-grade reading and math instruction.

Because of how the “general intelligence” concept works — which relates much more to time than cognition — children likely to score well or poorly on basic reading skill tests are also likely to score correspondingly well or poorly on basic math skill tests. (Radiolab recently had a fantastic series on “general intelligence” measurement. All educators — and really all citizens — should listen to it.) 

Not coincidently, I hypothesize, Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores — and only 4th grade NAEP — are quite high relative to the country — (+7) points in both Reading and Math. You can check this out for yourself here.

By 8th grade, that has plunged to (-3) for Math and (+1) for Reading.

In 12th grade — in 2013 — it was (-4) for Math and (-1) for Reading. That same 2013 year, it was (+7) in 4th grade, just like it was in 2017.

It’s worth noting that this most recent NAEP, taken in 2017, was seen as a victory for Florida’s Jebucation-model politicians and educrats. They crowed and crowed about it as a 2018 campaign prop. See my full article on that here.

Reconciling the Florida Death Purple and the gamed-NAEP

That same article I wrote examines the stark divergence of the gamed proficiency measure of the NAEP and the results of a comprehensive individual test score growth study from Stanford University. Florida’s educrat industrial complex continues to completely ignore the Stanford study, even to try to refute it.

As I wrote in my last essay, according to that study, from 2009-2015, the state of Florida had the worst individual test score growth of any state in America. If you were a child in Florida’s system during that time, your growth in performance on the state tests over the course of your education was the worst in the country. The image above shows it at the county level. Purple is bad. “Florida is an almost insane basket case,” noted one magazine writer.

As you can see, no Florida county — not one — averaged a full-year of growth per child in that period of time. None. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the Florida’s test score growth for individual children was any better before 2009 or after 2015. Those periods just haven’t been studied. If you care about test score data, as the people in Florida purport to, it’s impossible to see this state as anything but a catastrophic failure unless you can refute that study. It’s what the data says. Clearly.

A unified theory for why Florida chooses to abuse

So, what do we know?

We know that retained children score worse on tests over time. We know they are less likely to graduate. We know their life outcomes suffer. We know that Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores are high compared to the rest of the country. We know those same NAEP results collapse in later grades.

Therefore, I hypothesize that Florida officially, by law, abuses children though its third-grade retention laws to provide a short-term sugar high for the 4th grade NAEP. This allows educrats at the DoE and politicians to pat themselves on the back.

Predictably, the social and life effects of losing connection to your age and friend cohort — combined with endless official reminders of your “failure” — begins to kicks in powerfully. By 8th grade, individual catastrophe after individual catastrophe has accumulated to wipe out any aggregate benefit of 4th grade NAEP-gaming. By 12th grade, Florida trails the country in both Math and Reading.

So, the divergence of aggregate proficiency vs. individual growth isn’t really surprising at all. In fact, on what planet would anyone expect an individual growth measure of what Florida does to look anything but appalling? In Florida’s fraudulent and cruel reality, the NAEP results and the Death Purple results are completely consistent with each other.

Of course, there’s an easy way to test my hypothesis: the NAEP could test in 6th, 9th, and 12th grade. And then we could just watch what Florida does in response.

Third grade retention is to education what child separation is to immigration

The third-grade retention law is irredeemable and indefensible. It only exists because no one has effectively challenged it politically as what it is: child abuse to game corrupt tests.

Like child separation in immigration, third grade retention amounts to feckless child cruelty, disguised as policy. It’s also done primarily to citizens. And our most vulnerable citizens at that. Like child separation, third grade retention intentionally inflicts child misery — but on citizens — for purely political purposes: to both deter the public from choosing public schools and to convince the public that cruelty is the best path to scoreboard success.

Thus, third grade retention is entirely a political — not educational — government choice. And the public has experienced enough of this gratuitous, pointless cruelty to know something, somehow is very, very wrong. But the complexity and duplicitous moral language of American and Floridian education is bewildering. And frankly, no modern politician of state or national stature knows enough about education to explain what’s wrong and build a simple political case around it. No politician has shown the ability to make this argument as simple as it actually is. Education is unlike almost any other issue in its ability to confound political speech.

Yet, the youth suicide and stress and mental health stats show that the human stakes of Florida’s educational cruelty are extraordinarily high — as high as the human stakes for any other issue in modern America. But the same politicians who can forcefully condemn child cruelty and abuse in immigration policy completely lack the vocabulary to do it in education policy.

That’s why there remains no meaningful opposition political party at the state or national level to challenge the party in power in the Florida Model, which isn’t even actually the Republican party. It’s the party of Foundation for Florida’s Future and Step Up for Students and Ralph Arza/Richard Corcoran/predatory corporate charter schools.

The opposition party should concentrate fire on 3rd grade retention

Fortunately, for the first time since 1998, I think, a ground-level, knowledgable opposition party is forming and speaking with great moral and intellectual clarity about the immorality at the heart of the Florida model. I’m proud to be part of it. We are cross-partisan. Education politics don’t line up with national party politics anyway.

I believe that we members of the cross-partisan opposition to Richard Corcoran and Kelli Stargel should focus all of our rhetorical and political policy fire on the fraud and cruelty of third grade retention. It is their weakest ground — morally, politically, educationally. As education policy, it is an unambiguous failure. It is unambiguous cruelty and fraud. For no benefit at all. Period.

Along with school grades, it is the technical foundation of all the other Florida fraud that rests on top of it. And it is probably an easier short-term target than school grades.

If you ended mandatory third grade retention, the fourth grade NAEP scores would drop; and growth measures would likely increase, if that’s what you care about. When the smoke cleared, Florida would likely look exceedingly average on its test score measures — which, in America’s most test-obsessed state, is pretty damning in its own right.

But it’s not as damning as kicking children in the teeth over and over and over again just because you like it.


4 thoughts on ““The data” says 3rd grade retention is academic fraud; basic humanity says it’s barbaric child abuse.

  1. Retention is only the last in a series of “kicks in the teeth” our students experience. As our population is less homogeneous we cling to separating students into “grades”. Kids in any grade can be a year apart in age, have significantly different preschool experiences, different social stresses, etc. Yet we set “standards”, pacing guides, curriculum for the grade, NOT the students. Of course, we offer remediation, differentiations and other catchy terms to “fix” them instead of allowing normal differences. schools are actively damaging these kids through developmentally inappropriate demands. Not just third grade:look all the way back to kindergarten.

  2. In my experience so far, the Florida school system is the worst and barbaric is a good description. Not surprising why homeschooling is as popular as it is in Florida. My experience is that they don’t seem to even like children.

  3. Lynn, there was a notion at one time of having K-3 as ungraded time. Some children would leave after three years, some after five, most after four. I don’t know what happened to that.

  4. My 13yr old daughter is in her second year homeschooling. We held her back in 2nd grade just so we would not face retention due to the tests as she has an IEP/adhd and she was struggling with reading. We didn’t want unnecessary pressure added through 3rd grade. That way the FSA did not matter if she passed or failed. Those tests have so much pressure on our children.. Let me rephrase.. Unneeded pressure for our little ones. She is doing very well at home school and enjoying learning now! We see such a difference.

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