South Carolina schools are holding back less than 10 percent of the third-grade students who failed a reading test under a new law aimed at addressing literacy problems early.

The four-year-old law says that, starting in 2018, schools must hold back any student who "fails to demonstrate reading proficiency at the end of the third grade."

But of the 4,059 students who failed the reading test administered by the state, only 354 will be held back for the 2018-2019 school year. That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade.

Some of the students being allowed to move on to the fourth grade completed a summer reading assessment with scores equivalent to less than a second grade proficiency.

The third-grade retention policy that took effect this year is the final, dramatic component of South Carolina's 2014 Read to Succeed Act, which lawmakers proposed as a remedy to the state's perennially poor literacy results. Poor reading skills remain a big problem in South Carolina, where fourth-graders recently dropped to 47th in the nation in reading proficiency.

Reading to Proceed

Unlike other states that created hard-and-fast cutoffs for reading proficiency and stuck to their policy even when tens of thousands of students had to be held back, South Carolina set a low bar for failure and then wrote seven "good cause exemptions" into the law that let most of the failing students advance to fourth grade anyway.

The law includes exemptions for students who have certain disabilities and already received more than two years of intensive remediation; who have limited English proficiency and less than two years of instruction in an English for Speakers of Other Languages program; or who have already received two years of reading intervention and were previously retained.

Low-performing students were also invited to summer reading camps hosted by school districts. The state paid for the camps, but their curricula varied based on local decisions regarding literacy approaches and additional funding. If the students could score above a state-set "cut score" on another assessment at the end of the summer, they could move on to fourth grade.

On one of the tests that districts could give at the end of summer reading camp, the STAR Reading assessment, a student could advance to fourth grade if he or she earned a score of 169. According to grade conversion charts in the test maker's technical manual, a student should be able to attain that score by the eighth month of first grade. Third grade equivalent scores range from 344 to 446.

Classes started Monday in many districts, and state education officials say parents and students already have been notified if they are going to have to repeat third grade. But the state is still collecting its final numbers.

The figure of 354 retained students is based on a survey that the S.C. Department of Education sent to district superintendents. Department spokesman Ryan Brown said that, as of Aug. 17, four districts still had not responded. The state could not provide a breakdown of the good-cause exemptions that were used.

The Florida model

The Read to Succeed Act passed with fanfare from Republicans and Democrats alike in April 2014 thanks to a compromise in the state Legislature. The law committed tens of millions of dollars to hiring reading coaches for elementary schools, running summer reading camps, and testing the language skills of 4- and 5-year-olds.

Republican lawmakers including Sen. Harvey Peeler of Gaffney, who now serves as chair of the Education Committee, pushed for the law as a means of accountability, hoping to catch reading problems early on. Democrats threw their support behind the bill after a promise to expand 4-year-old kindergarten to more counties.

"We’re not doing it for us. We’re doing it for the children in this state,” Peeler said in a tearful speech after the bill passed. “To the thousands of people in South Carolina who don’t read too good, this is for you!"

Peeler was not available for comment Monday.

South Carolina isn't the first state to hold back young students for their English test scores. Florida was the first to try such a policy in 2003 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who also pushed to provide publicly funded vouchers for families to use at private schools and assigned A-F letter grades to schools and districts.

Using scores from the state's FCAT reading test, the Sunshine State held back about 23,000 third-graders in the first year. If South Carolina had held back students at Florida's rate, then it would have retained about 6,200 students.

After Bush and state education leaders trumpeted short-term improvements after the mass retention, researchers found discouraging results over time. One 2016 longitudinal study by Florida Gulf Coast University researchers looked at retained students in a single large district and found 93 percent scored below grade level on the 10th-grade FCAT, and 41 percent did not graduate with a high school diploma.

The policy came at a cost to taxpayers, too. Because districts had to educate many students for an additional year and ramp up hiring of third-grade teachers for a sudden influx of repeating students, experts estimated the policy cost the state $587 million over a decade.

Another study, published in 2012 by Harvard researcher Guido Schwerdt and others, found that retaining students in third grade was at least more beneficial than retaining them in later grades. But their overall findings did not portray the policy as a resounding success.

"Based on same-age comparisons, we find evidence of substantial short-term gains in both math and reading achievement," the authors concluded. "However, these positive effects fade out over time and become statistically insignificant within five years."

354 too many?

Students who failed the test with a "Not Met 1" score in the spring were told exactly what that meant: They might have to repeat third grade.

One July morning during Colleton County’s summer reading camp at Northside Elementary, a soft-voiced girl with beads clacking in her braided hair said she had loved her days at camp so far — field trips and games and all. The theme at her camp was superheroes. In other counties, the theme was animals. Some had no theme.

But the girl also knew what would happen if she didn't score high enough on the STAR test at the end of summer:

“If I don’t read enough, I have to do third grade again.”

And how did it feel when her teacher broke the news? Her face clouded over.

“I felt mad and sad at the same time," she said. "I felt left out."

Paul Thomas, a Furman University professor of education who has criticized the third-grade retention policy, said the long list of exemptions might have been inserted by "good people trying to make a dangerous policy less dangerous."

Like many education researchers, he points to a growing body of research that suggests grade retention does more harm than good.

Students who are held back at a young age are more likely than their peers to drop out of high school and tend to have lower rates of self-esteem and school attendance. Nationwide, about 10 percent of students are retained at least once between kindergarten and eighth grade, with black and low-income students disproportionately retained compared with their white and middle-class peers.

"Three hundred and fifty-four students retained is still 354 too many," Thomas said. "As long as we use tests as our primary or sometimes sole indicator on what to do with students, we don’t know how many false positives and false negatives are out there."

Meanwhile, teachers at reading camps this summer gave mixed reviews of Read to Succeed.

“I think what they want is admirable,” Sonia Inabinett, a reading coach in Colleton County schools, said of the state Legislature. “It may be a start.”

The students Inabinett works with face the same tough challenges as their peers in other poor and rural districts: behavior issues, reading deficits at home, and the constant stress and distraction of poverty.

What the teachers really need, she said, are smaller classroom sizes during the school year. They need interventions that work, and much earlier than the summer after third grade.


Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.