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Michelle Phillips leads a interactive read aloud session during Colleton County's Summer Reading program at Northside Elementary Monday, July 16, 2018 in Walterboro. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

If the purpose of the state Read to Succeed law is to hold back third-graders who struggle with reading, it isn’t working very well. Out of about 4,000 third-graders who failed a state reading test during the last school year, when the new rules went into effect, only 354 will be held back.

But that might not be such a bad thing.

Evidence on the effectiveness of repeating a grade in boosting academic performance is mixed at best. Some studies suggest it leads to higher dropout rates. Others show a temporary improvement that evaporates by the end of high school.

And holding back students is costly, as Post and Courier reporter Paul Bowers reported Monday.

Florida began aggressively requiring that under-performing third-graders repeat a year in 2003, for example. But researchers found that it cost the state more than $580 million over a decade. Most of the affected students scored below grade level on high school assessments, and 40 percent never graduated.

None of this is to suggest that reading is not important, of course. It’s a necessary skill for learning math and other subjects, and it’s crucial to any career. It’s important for being a productive member of society. It’s vital to self-esteem and personal enrichment.

Holding third-graders who read below grade level back for a year may not be the best way to help them, however.

For one thing, we should start younger. It may be easier to identify struggling kids and offer more effective support when students are still being taught the basics.

Data from the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative suggest that more than half of students entering kindergarten in 2017 were behind on fundamentals like phonics that predict later reading success. We need to catch kids as early as possible.

Students who aren’t keeping up also need personalized attention — something that simply repeating a grade likely won’t offer without additional intervention. Read to Succeed funded summer reading camps and specialized reading coaches, both of which are needed resources.

Most teachers could benefit from extra help in the classroom or smaller class sizes, which would free up opportunities to give more intensive support to the students who need it the most.

In the four Charleston area school districts, several teachers working with young students recently underwent specialized training in teaching literacy under a program in partnership with Trident United Way. If effective, the Reading by Third Project should be expanded.

Data on the more than 4,000 third-graders who failed the test last year also suggest that reading difficulties correlate with high-poverty, predominantly minority schools, though children who struggle with reading can be found in many other areas.

Addressing the poverty gap and the larger challenges facing the state’s minority communities will take tremendous effort on a variety of fronts. But our state’s future depends on addressing longstanding disparities.

South Carolina schools need to give all children the best chance to succeed. The state can’t prosper without a well-educated population. And reading is fundamental.

A heightened focus on meeting basic reading standards by third grade is a smart policy. We should study what works best, be open to new and innovative approaches and expand on successes.

Holding back third-graders, however, should be a last resort.