April 9, 2022

Nancy Bailey: The Harm Caused By the Third Grade Reading Ultimatum

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One of the worst ideas of the education disruption movement has been the third grade reading ultimatum–pass the test or fail. Nancy Bailey explains some of the damage. Reposted with permission.

Tremendous pressure is placed on children to learn to read by third grade. They must pass state reading tests created by those expecting them to read at this time. If they don’t do well, they could fail third grade. Yet there’s no clear research on the age a child should be able to read.

Not knowing exactly the age when a child should read leaves the door open for much conjecture as to the age adults expect children to read.

No Child Left Behind 

There’s no research indicating we should be hurrying children to read early, which started with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), or earlier. Formal reading used to begin in first grade. But with NCLB, formal reading instruction has been pushed down to kindergarten. It has become the norm.

NCLB, however, was poorly conceived. Those who wrote NCLB chose third grade as a pivotal year. Yet, studies from years ago indicated NCLB failed to increase reading achievement in fourth grade (Dee & Jacob, 2011).

Supporters of this policy promised at the time, that by following punitive accountability measures all third graders would read at grade level by 2014! That did not occur (here are excuses why) and children, who are told not to have any excuses, have been paying the price ever since.

The third-grade reading ultimatum has remained in place since then. The Every Student Succeeds Act has done nothing to reduce such pressure and few consider that if children aren’t doing well on reading assessments, if they’re having trouble reading, maybe it’s due to NCLB’s harsh third-grade reading expectations!

I was notified that the Ohio House Primary & Secondary Education Committee is sponsoring a bill to eliminate retention under Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee (TGRG). Ohio 3rd grade teachers, educators, and parents should contact their representatives and express their concerns. HB 497.


When children don’t do well in third grade they might be retained.

Research shows that retention negatively influences a child’s life and could haunt them for years to come. Many retained students drop out, yet some states continue to follow former Gov. Jeb Bush’s poor 2002 practice of instituting third-grade retention.

Obviously, it hasn’t improved reading scores or everyone would be content with reading progress! This third-grade threat increases the pressure placed on preschool, kindergarten, and third-grade children.


Since NCLB, Kindergarten has been seen as an important class to learn to read, likely so children will be reading well by third grade.

It used to be a quiet time to introduce children to school. Kindergarten used to be only half a day. Children mostly played and learned a few skills and their ABCs and some counting. There wasn’t pressure to learn to read.

There are certain developmental traits that are encouraged, interest in books, rhyming, and speech sounds, but since NCLB the hyper-focus for students to read has been pushed down so early that many parents and educators insist three-year-olds, even younger, can and should read.

Sadly, even those considered reading experts still promote the NCLB message.

Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and former director of reading for Chicago Public Schools, stated in 2021 in USA News and World Report, When Do Kids Learn to Read?

These days kindergarten reading skills is pretty universal. There is no particular age that one has to learn to read. But starting early provides the greatest opportunity for children’s success.

Shanahan normalizes reading instruction in kindergarten when he should push back and remind parents that formal education used to be in first grade.

Next, he states there’s no particular age and he doesn’t define early. Parents who read this may focus on introducing skills, rigidly pushing children to read when they are very young.

In the same report, they state:

U.S. Department of Education reading programs often say children should learn to read by age 8, or third grade, because learning to read transitions into reading to learn other subjects soon thereafter.

Again, this is using NCLB still to tell educators and parents when children should read. They created the slogan.


If children aren’t reading well today, it is important to pull back the curtain and look more at the policies that have rigidly pushed reading instruction down to the earlier years.

It might start by not forcing children to read by third grade, and ending retention which we know is harmful.

Finnish children start school at age 7 and they are known for allowing children plenty of play.

Many point to the differences Finland has from America. There’s less poverty and a straightforward spelling system, and a much simpler syllabic structure than English. Many Finnish children also show up to school already reading.

We can point to these differences, but one thing is certain, the changes made to instruction with NCLB and the other school policy changes, like Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards, have not improved reading throughout the years.

Poor policy has dictated that children should read by third grade, and it has become sacrosanct even though there’s no steadfast rule when children should know how to read.

Why not review the harmful effects of NCLB and third-grade retention that have been around for twenty years?

It’s time to rethink third-grade expectations and the pressure placed on children even earlier to learn how to read.


See: 3rd Grade Reading Laws Are Harmful (nancyebailey.com) by Stefanie Rysdahl Fuhr



Dee, T. S. & Jacob, B. (2011), The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Student Achievement. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 30(3), pp. 418-446.


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