COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The games, ice cream and play rehearsals that 9-year-old Joshua Rowell experienced during summer school this year weren't just for fun.
Joshua, like thousands of Ohio third-graders, had missed a state literacy target on a standardized test. He faced being held back in third grade unless his reading skills improved.
As fellow summer school students at Clinton Elementary School rehearsed a play, "The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf," Joshua said activities like playing word games, making recipes and practicing play scripts helped, but he also had to work on reading at home.
"Because of my homework, I would have to read 80 or 60 minutes," he said.
Across the nation, the 8- and 9-year-olds in third grade are increasingly feeling the pressure.
Since the idea was pioneered in Florida in 2002, automatic retention for unsatisfactory third-grade reading scores has spread to at least nine states, according to the Tallahassee, Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, which tracks the movement.
In 10 other states, third-grade retention laws have certain caveats, such as giving parents a final say or requiring reading intervention before students can be held back.
The concept is based on education literature that describes third grade as a critical juncture for students, a moment in their education when they shift from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." Reading, in other words, moves from being a subject to be studied to become a tool to be employed. It's also popular among state lawmakers who believe the current education system allows for "social promotion," wherein students are passed to the next grade for social reasons even though they haven't attained educational targets.
Education officials where the idea has been adopted tout myriad benefits, as they face critics who say holding back third-graders is hard on kids and families and adds to the costs of education.
"This will have a positive effect on our whole state," the Florida Department of Education says in online guidance to parents. "It will reduce the need for remedial education in middle and high school and may lower dropout rates and juvenile delinquency."
In Ohio, where the Third Grade Reading Guarantee went into effect this year, more than 12,000 third-graders faced retention after the first round of reading scores were calculated in June.
But there was good news for 25,000 other third-graders who initially had missed the reading target; they now had passed. Many had signed up for summer school as a precaution, Clinton Elementary school principal Kathy Leffler said.
Third-grade teacher David Wilson, who taught the past two summers, said he's witnessed heightened anxiety during both the regular school year and in summer school since the retention requirement was put in place.
"I had one student who was throwing up every day" in the days leading up to the reading test, he said.
Alicia Priest, vice president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said her state's retention law was revamped last year to give families and teachers more say in whether a child stays in third grade or moves on.
"That snapshot of that child's reading on that one day in April was determining whether they should advance to the next grade," she said. "We believe you should look at the whole child: What are the other factors that might have impacted that test, their abilities in other subjects, the social issues involved if they're held back?"
The Foundation for Educational Excellence says any stress from adding retention requirements ultimately will be trumped by long-term benefits. The center says the vast majority of high school dropouts did not meet third-grade reading requirements.
Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said the state is providing additional opportunities for third-graders to earn a promotion score in reading. Beyond the end-of-year test, there was a follow-up exam in August, along with the option of taking one of three alternate assessments. Third-graders who are held back also may take the reading test again mid-year.
Joshua Rowell's mother, Char, said he thrived in summer school and got a score of accelerated on the August test. He's now in fourth grade.
Charlton said, "We're trying very hard not to stigmatize the student, which is very important to us and to families and educators."
He said districts are embracing the concept. "We've seen lots of creativity like before- and after-school programs, bringing in senior citizens to help the children, using peer tutors," he said.
The expansion of retention laws comes as a recent Dartmouth University study contradicts the widely-held notion that students stop learning to read in third grade.
Associate Professor of Education Donna Coch said her research looked at the elasticity of the brain when it comes to reading by comparing third-graders to college students. Her study found that third-graders' brains had not yet fully developed the processors that allowed the college students to see strings of letters and symbols as words.
"These third-grade reading guarantees are implicitly buying into the idea of a fourth-grade shift," she said. "Our data suggests there is no fourth-grade shift."