Mary Laura Bragg, who ran Florida's third-grade retention program under Bush, said it forced elementary schools to get serious about literacy. Principals moved their best teachers to kindergarten and first and second grades, she said. Schools sought state funds for diagnostic reading tests and other help.
"I saw a sea change in behavior," Bragg said. "It's a shame that it was the threat of retention that spurred these schools into doing what they should have been doing all along."
A study that tracked third-graders retained in Florida found that they showed significant academic gains in the first two years, but those effects faded over time. Still, fewer students have been retained each year since the policy took effect, which suggests the emphasis on early reading is having an impact.
After leaving office, Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education to promote his education policies across the country. The foundation, which reported more than $9 million in revenue and assets in 2011, has lobbied and provided technical and strategic help to state officials and lawmakers who want to adopt third-grade retention laws.
Bragg, now a policy director at the foundation, is in frequent contact with lawmakers and education officials across the country. "Our mission is to help spread reform state by state, and a K-3 reading policy is one of those that states are very interested in," she said.
In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich, R, signed into law the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, which says that starting this year, third-graders who fail a statewide reading test won't be permitted to enter fourth grade. Similar laws are rolling out in Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Tennessee and Colorado.
Most policies require that schools evaluate children as early as kindergarten and notify parents if their child is below grade level. Schools are required to create a plan for each student and provide intensive reading tutoring, summer reading programs or other help. Most states make exceptions to the retention policy for English language learners, students with disabilities or children who have been previously retained.
Retaining a student can be expensive. In addition to providing additional coaching during the school year and summer programs, districts essentially must add another school year to a child's academic career.
Paula Peterson, principal at Charles Fairbanks Elementary in Indianapolis said she's seen children slump under the weight of Indiana's new law, which took effect last year.
"The children all knew if you didn't pass, you weren't going on," she said, adding that children who failed last spring's test were demoralized. "A lot of them gave up. They weren't trying to do any work. The attitude was, 'What's the difference?
I failed.' "
Of 64 third-graders tested last spring, 29 did not pass. After exemptions were granted, 12 children were held back. Seven of those children did not return to Charles Fairbanks Elementary in the fall; the school is in a high-poverty neighborhood where children are frequently moving in and out, Peterson said. That left five students to repeat third grade.
"I know there has to be accountability," she said. "But I have a problem with anything that hinges on one picture, on saying that one quick snapshot means anything. One test and everything hangs on the balance."
Cameron Flint, 9, is intensely aware that she must pass the third-grade reading test this month at her school in Evansville, Ind.
"She talks about it, she's even cried," said her mother, Bobbie Flint. "She says things like, 'I hope I go to fourth grade with all my friends.' "
Even though she is an honor-roll student, Cameron finds reading difficult and doesn't perform well on tests. Her teachers notified Flint at the start of the current school year that Cameron was at risk of being held back.
"I freaked out," said Flint, who learned that Cameron was almost a full grade behind her peers and is mildly dyslexic. Flint hired a tutor and says her daughter has made progress.
"I feel confident she's going to pass that test," Flint said. "But I still feel these tests aren't fair. It's good to know where your child stands. . . . But let's not go so far as saying we're going to retain your child, and you have no say. Don't threaten my child and her educational career because of one test."
Worries about stressed-out children are misplaced, Bragg said.
"The pressure shouldn't be on the kids, it should be on the adults," she said.
Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a collaboration between political, education and business leaders to improve literacy, said the country shouldn't be arguing about social promotion vs. grade retention. If teachers and schools performed well, the debate would be moot, he said.
"Adults should just do what they should be doing, which is to identify the challenges that kids face and respond to those challenges early," he said.