Studies have linked dropout rates in Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina to the effects of grade retention, student discouragement, and school exclusion policies stimulated by high-stakes tests.
~Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and former President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute (Darling-Hammond, 2004)
No child should feel like a failure in school. No child.
However, conservatives continue to try to remake the long-time evidence showing the harm of grade retention. Here’s the recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute paper Think Again. Is Grade Retention Bad for Kids?
In Struggling Students Who Repeat Third Grade See Improved Achievement, researchers Hwang and Koedel examine Indiana’s test-based retention policy, using statewide data on third through seventh graders from 2011–12 to 2016–17. They claim significant increases in students’ reading and math scores for up to five years after retention. They found no evidence of disciplinary or attendance problems regardless of student gender, race/ethnicity, or family income level due to retention.
But the authors note:
…their study does not examine the longer run effects of grade retention, including outcomes in high school, or the effects on other non-academic outcomes, such as self-esteem, peer relationships, or confidence.
This study seems different from most studies over a 75-year timeline, showing retention as ineffective.
Retention, or “flunking,” as kids call it, is a painful ordeal that can haunt students for years. Children retained in elementary school usually look more developed and older than their peers by middle school. This alone is reason enough to end retention.
The argument is that retention is better than social promotion. The truth is that neither is helpful. Children can receive remedial assistance without retention!
The sad fact is that retention isn’t necessary. Many less expensive alternatives would work better without humiliating children.
For or Against Retention
In 2015, Education Week reported on a speech by former Governor Jeb Bush, a chief promoter of third-grade retention, who expressed concern for children living in poverty falling further behind.
He staunchly defended a policy that he and his education foundations have strongly lobbied for in Florida and elsewhere: holding back 3rd graders who can’t demonstrate literacy. Sarcastically dismissing those who say that such students may struggle emotionally to deal with being held back, Bush told his Tallahassee audience, “God forbid if little Johnny is stressed out. How horrible it is for their self esteem if they’re held back.”
Bush and company seem to believe retention is good for students and ignore opposing studies and better alternatives. They point to states like Mississippi and Florida as having improved test results, but unanswered questions surround those states, and their progress, and other states with retention have not seen such gains.
Michigan dropped its third-grade retention requirement.
“Today, we are taking action to put power back into parents’ hands so they can work with their child’s teachers and make decisions that are best for their family,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said. “Getting this done will offer parents more flexibility and ensure educators can focus on doing what they do best—helping students reach their full potential.”
There have been seventy-five years or more of retention research. Here are a few studies.
In 1984, Holmes and Matthews found that retained students showed lower academic achievement, poorer personal adjustment, and lower self-concept. In addition, they found that in all cases, the outcomes for students promoted were more positive than for those who were retained.
Owings and Kaplan found that retained students are likelier to drop out, and they also deemed retention to be expensive (2001). In addition, they emphasize licensed teachers and practical strategies to assist students.
Roderick found that students who failed kindergarten through third grade have a 75 percent chance of dropping out by tenth grade, while those who fail grades four through six have a 90 percent chance of dropping out by tenth grade (1994).
Roderick and Nagaoka examined grade retention in Chicago under their high stakes testing policy. They found that students struggled during the retained year and faced increased rates of special education placement (2005). Among third graders, retention didn’t lead to greater achievement growth two years after promotion. With sixth graders, retention was associated with lower achievement growth.
Jimerson reviewed studies published between 1990 and 1999 and did a meta-analysis of 20 studies reviewing outcome variables (i.e., achievement and socioemotional adjustment) and age or grade of retained population. He matched or controlled variables in the analyses with comparison groups. He found that the results of recent studies and this meta-analysis are consistent with past literature reviews from the 1970s and 1980s. He called for researchers and policymakers to end the debate between inadequate retention and social promotion and focus on better solutions, some of which are included below.
Alternatives to Retention
Looping means children get the same teacher for two years. It’s a practical and inexpensive way to help children move along, and they need never know they have learning difficulties. It gives the teacher time to get to know students and to adjust class instruction, individualizing instruction for those who need it.
Resource classes used to provide children with intensive reading remediation for one to two hours during the day. Resource teachers were specially trained in reading and math. They also monitored a child’s progress in general education classes. They also collaborated with general education teachers to assist children in those classes. With IDEA reauthorizations, resource rooms fell out of favor in many school districts, with parents calling for inclusion.
Inclusion and Team Teaching.
IDEA also called for a special education teacher to work alongside the general education teacher in general class settings, ensuring that teachers follow the progress of students with IEPs. Such teaming can boost the success of children with or without disabilities.
Smaller Class Sizes in K-3rd Grade
All classes should be manageable sizes, but it’s especially important in kindergarten through 3rd grade when children get their formal start in school. Lowering classes makes sense. It gives teachers the autonomy to study children’s individual learning needs, address IEPS, and help them differentiate instruction. They can more easily bring small groups of students together.
One of the best studies done in education was the Tennessee Project STAR, which showed lowering K-3 class sizes was beneficial. This study should be revisited.
Reading and Math Camps
The Fordham article mentions reading and math camps, which might help students review and learn skills. Such camps don’t need to be attached to retention, however.
There are many ways to help students with learning difficulties. There is no need to use retention. There is no need to focus on failure. Children thrive when they are succeeding, not when they are failing.
Darling-Hammond, L. From ‘Separate to Equal’ to ‘No Child Left Behind’ The collision of new standards and old inequalities. In Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging Out Children and Our Schools, ed. Deborah Meier and George Wood (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 20.
National Association of School Psychologists. (2003).Position statement on student grade retention and social promotion. Bethesda, MD: author.
Ujifusa, A. (2015). Steering clear of Common Core, Jeb Bush decries schools that fail poor students. Education Week.
Holmes, C. T., & Matthews, K. M. (1984). The effects of nonpromotion on elementary and junior high school pupils: A meta-analysis. Reviews of Educational Research, 54, 225-236.
Owings, W.A. and Kaplan, L.S. (2001). Standards, Retention, and Social Promotion.” NASSP Bulletin, 85 (629): 57-66.
Roderick, M. (1994). Grade Retention and School Dropout: Investigating the Association. American Educational Research Journal, 31(4), 729–759. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312031004729
Roderick, M. & Nagaoka, J. (2005). Retention under Chicago’s High-Stakes Testing Program: Helpful, Harmful, or Harmless? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(4), 309–340. https://doi.org/10.3102/01623737027004309
Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century. School Psychology Review, 30(3), 420–437. https://doi.org/10.1080/02796015.2001.12086124
Past Posts About Retention
The Harm Caused By the Third Grade Reading Ultimatum April 5, 2022
For You Michigan! You Are Wrong about Retention! October 17, 2015
Retention’s False Promise: Instead—Better Alternatives February 13, 2015
Setting Children Up to Hate Reading February 2, 2014