Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

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The Need to Achieve by Grade Three


Research demonstrates how foundational 3rd grade reading and math proficiency is to students’ future success, including completing high school on time.  Particularly with reading, after 3rd grade, students need to read to learn, not just learn to read.

We know in Kentucky that more must be done to increase student achievement in the primary grades.  Far too many of our students are not reaching proficiency.  We know this from the 2018 KPREP assessment data where only 52.3% of 3rd graders scored proficient or above in reading. Moreover, trends in 3rd grade KPREP assessment data since 2012 show that not only is overall proficiency not increasing fast enough, but achievement gaps remain persistent between student groups.

This problem is by no means unique to Kentucky. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of 4th graders are not reading at the proficient level as assessed by NAEP, the nation’s report card.

At a recent meeting of our Strong Start Coalition, we heard from the Education Commission of the States about policies and practices being implemented across the country with the intent of increasing student achievement in kindergarten through 3rd grade. These efforts are taking a variety of forms including: better use of assessment and assessment data, alignment of standards and curriculum in the early years, teacher professional development, targeted funding, intensive intervention, and grade retention.

Here at home, the state Board of Education recently indicated in their legislative priorities for 2019 a proposal that would require diagnosis and intervention of reading and mathematics deficiencies for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade and the establishment of a  retention threshold for students in 3rd grade who fail to meet a minimum standard in reading.  It is unclear how, or if, this legislation will take shape.  No bill is currently filed.  Commissioner Lewis has indicated that KDE is engaging stakeholders across the state to help shape the Department’s proposal. Let’s take a closer look at one aspect of this proposal: grade retention.

Retention: A Primer

Retention policies are, at their core, the practice of holding students back from advancing to the next grade if they fail to meet certain learning goals.  Some states have used this strategy in their effort to increase 3rd grade proficiency.

California was the first state to implement a 3rd grade retention policy in 1998, and currently 18 states and the District of Columbia have such policies in place.  These include some of Kentucky’s border states in Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee.  Generally, grade retention policies include exemptions for students that allow them to move on to fourth grade. Special exceptions are often made for:

  • Students identified as an English language learner
  • Students identified as having a disability
  • Students with a demonstrated proficiency on an alternative assessment
  • Students who were previously retained
  • Students who participate in an intervention, such as a summer reading program

It is unlikely that retention alone will significantly improve the academic achievement of students – and the research on retention is at best mixed.

What Does the Research Say

In the short term:

In the long term:

  • An evaluation of Florida’s policy by the National Bureau of Economic research shows some academic gains in students who were retained, but no increase in the likelihood a student would graduate high school.
  • Another evaluation of Chicago’s policy also found that retention did not increase the likelihood of graduating high school, and also that retaining older students might increase the likelihood they drop out of school.

Other Approaches

Many states also employ other interventions, besides retention.  These included strategies like supplemental instruction where students receive extra help in the summer, on Saturday or after school.  Family engagement, academic improvement plans, and improving teacher preparation and professional development are also common.


Any new approach Kentucky considers needs to focus on improving and investing in the teaching and learning environment, including:


  • Increasing student learning time
  • Improving what and how students are taught through knowledge rich curricula and effective professional learning strategies; and
  • Early and effective intervention for those students struggling.


Further Resources


The Education Commission of States has some great resources that address the research, what other states are doing and best practices for third grade literacy and numeracy.  This includes  a database on K-3 policies, a Policy Makers Guide, and their most recent paper on transitions and alignment from preschool to kindergarten. We know that reading is fundamental to student success both in and out of school and a strong mathematics foundation is critical to advancing through the latter years of pre-secondary and post-secondary education. Through careful planning, targeted early interventions, and increased student learning time, Kentucky’s seemingly insurmountable obstacles in education can be corrected with time. In future posts, we will be diving into more detail on some of the intervention strategies we discussed here, as well as efforts Kentucky currently has in place to improve on student success in early grades.

Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.