Third-Grade Reading Legislation



young student readingReading proficiently by the end of third grade has become a significant milestone in a student's educational trajectory as it marks the time when the focus is placed on reading to learn instead of learning to read.

To encourage local schools and districts to take this milestone seriously, several states have enacted legislation that requires students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade to be retained.

Other states have built legislation that allows for promotion to fourth grade for non-proficient readers but requires participation in intervention services, summer reading camps, demonstration of proficiency through a reading portfolio and/or many other standards.

This page is dedicated to providing current information on the myriad of state legislation that is related to third-grade reading proficiency, including research, an interactive map, and additional resources.


In 2015, roughly 2 out of 3 fourth graders failed to score proficient in reading. The percentages of non-proficient readers are even higher when looking at specific racial/ethnic groups: 82 percent of African-American fourth-graders were reading below proficiency, along with 79 and 78 percent of Latino and American-Indian students respectively.

Gaps in reading proficiency are also large between students who receive free or reduced-price lunch (a measure of family income), at 79 percent non-proficient compared to students who did not receive free or reduced-price lunch, at 48 percent non-proficient.

Why is reading by the end of third grade so important? Research has demonstrated that students not reading proficiently at the end of third grade are four times more likely to not finish high school. Further, the levels of reading proficiency for third graders are linked to specific long-term outcomes: 23 percent of below-basic readers fail to finish high school, compared to 9 percent of basic-scoring readers and 4 percent of proficient readers.

Researchers have pointed out that unintended consequences of retention can include increased costs for school districts (national average of $10,700 per retained student). Additionally, retention can negatively impact students' long-term achievement (i.e. high school graduation rates).

Instead, researchers have argued for policymakers to not approach third-grade reading as a retention-promotion dichotomy, but in a more comprehensive manner by focusing on early identification and support well before third grade.

Boy studying from book

State Legislation

States have approached third-grade reading legislation in a variety of ways: some require retention while others allow for promotion to fourth grade with certain requirements and exemptions. The numbers and map below provide summaries and links to legislation at the state-level:

  • Seventeen states, plus D.C., require retention for students not reading at proficiency by the end of third grade,14 of which allow for conditional promotion. See good-cause exemptions below.
  • Good-cause exemptions include: limited English proficient students (typically three or fewer years in an English language acquisition program), special education students, participating in an intervention, parent, principal or teacher recommendations, previous retention, demonstrating proficiency through a portfolio (student work demonstrating mastery of academic standards in reading), or passing an approved alternative reading assessment
  • Eight states allow for retention (or retention is a local decision), but do not require it: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
  • 2019 Legislative Sessions (introduced legislation): Kentucky HB 272 would require third graders not reading proficiently to be retained; Missouri HB 464 would allow for grade retention subsequent to fourth grade (currently not allowed) and Oklahoma Senate Bill 37 and South Carolina HB 3406 would effectively remove retention requirements for third graders not reading proficiently. 

Third-Grade Reading Legislation

Require Retention Allow Retention - But Do Not Require Pending

*Nevada will begin implementation on July 1, 2019 and Michigan during the 2019-2020 academic year

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Matt Weyer is a senior policy specialist with NCSL's Education Program.

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