Colorado’s READ Act: Should Retention Be Part of the Solution?

By Lowry Hemphill

Colorado’s new READ Act is a significant response to persistent gaps in early reading achievement. Only about a third of Colorado fourth graders reach proficiency on challenging national assessments, and low income and Latino children in Colorado have been losing ground on national assessments over the past 15 years (NAEP, 2011).  Requiring monitoring for reading progress and the development of reading intervention plans is an important step taken by the Colorado legislature.

Lowry Hemphill

But many policymakers, like the Colorado legislators, show a naïveté about retention as part of the solution. Requiring that poor readers be considered for retention, one of the key provisions of the READ Act, is not likely to improve reading outcomes.  There is little in the research on student retention to support legislators’ hopes that this strategy will have an impact.

Longitudinal studies document that low-performing students who are kept back show reading progress across the elementary school grades that is very similar to that of poor readers who are promoted rather than retained in grade (Moser, West, & Hughes, 2012; Wu, West, & Hughes, 2008).  By the end of fifth grade, poor readers who are retained show very similar reading trajectories to those of other struggling readers, although the retained students received an extra year of instruction (Moser, West, & Hughes, 2012).

Students who are kept back, although given another year to meet expectations, rarely catch up with their peers.  A large study of retention in the Los Angeles schools found that by third grade, only 8% of Los Angeles children who were retained in grades K, 1, or 2 reached proficiency on California’s reading assessment.

Retention is enormously expensive. In a comparatively low spending state like Colorado, adding another year of elementary school can cost more than $10,000 per child, far more than even private one-on-one tutoring by a reading specialist.  Because schools don’t see the costs of retaining a child as a separate expense, the real price of retention is hidden.

Colorado’s focus on reversing early failure in reading is praiseworthy; but more effective (and cheaper) interventions deserve state investment: expansion of early literacy programs, reduction of class sizes in elementary grades, professional development in literacy pedagogy for teachers, and for children with the greatest needs, tutoring by trained reading specialists.


Cannon, J. S., & Lipscomb, S. (2011). Early grade retention and student success: Evidence from Los Angeles. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

Moser, S. E., West, S. G., & Hughes, J. N. (2012). Trajectories of math and reading achievement in low-achieving children in elementary school: Effects of early and later retention in grade. Journal of Educational Psychology . Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027571

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The nation’s report card: 2011 state snapshot report for Colorado.  U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Wu, W., West, S. G., & Hughes, J. N. (2008). Effect of retention in first grade on children’s growth trajectories over four years.   Journal of Educational Psychology , 100 (4), 727-740.


Lowry Hemphill is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Language and Literacy, Wheelock College. She collaborates with urban and suburban school districts on strategies for developing children’s deep comprehension of text.  The views expressed here are her own.