Experts: New Reading Mandate for Third-Graders Has Short-Term Gains

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- A new government mandate requires Iowa third graders to read at their grade level or they could get held back in school.

While there are short-term gains, studies show those gains dissolve.

“There is an immediate academic benefit in math or literacy,” said Dr. Constance Beecher, assistant professor at the Iowa State School of Education. “But then over time, they’re not doing any better than the students who were never retained, and in fact by the time they get to high school they’re doing slightly worse.

Experts say being held back in school can also impact a child's behavior.

“Students are retained. You will see an increase in behavioral referrals and disciplinarian actions in school. Especially for students who are economically disadvantaged, African American, or male. So is that worth the benefit of the little bit of academic increase that they get? I’m not sure,” said Beecher.

Those in mental health say that this large of an event can harm a child's psyche or help build resilience.

“The potential would reside for them to have a low self-esteem. And we know with low self-esteem and low academic performance, the data is very rich in supporting that you have higher risks of mental health concerns, higher risks of potential drug use, alcohol use down the road,” said Tim Lambertsen, Licensed Mental Health Counselor.

Lambertsen said that is an excellent time for parent intervention.

“Really supporting a child and saying, here is a challenge, and that is really a particular thing at the third-grade level,” he said. “Learning that it is OK to fail, learn that when we do struggle with things, it’s OK because the supports are always in place.”

However, these experts say that there is a solution.

“80% of brain growth happens between zero and 3,” Beecher said. “If we put the resources into the early ages, really enriching children’s experiences I don’t think we would even have to talk about retention.”

The reading level mandate will go into effect in 2017.