When Kids Are Held Back, Gains Can Follow

July 2017, Volume 40, Issue 11

Does repeating a grade help—or hurt—a student’s long-term academic progress?

New research from Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Martin West tells a nuanced and evidence-based story about grade retention, finding that—contrary to critics’ fears—repeating third grade does not reduce students’ chances of completing high school. In fact, it improves their preparedness for high school and their performance while enrolled.

The Background

Roughly 10 percent of children in the United States are retained at least once between kindergarten and eighth grade, West writes. Those rates could rise in the coming years, since 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted policies requiring that students who do not demonstrate basic reading proficiency when they first take state tests in third grade be held back. Florida has been the model for states adopting these policies; in 2002, it mandated that low-scoring third graders be retained and receive remedial services.

But retention has been the subject of longstanding debate. Those in favor believe that low-performing students stand to benefit from the opportunity for more instruction and services. Critics warn that students may be stigmatized or face reduced academic expectations. They point to evidence that students who are old for their grade level are more likely to drop out of high school.

The Research

Along with colleagues Guido Schwerdt and Marcus Winters, West used administrative data to study the causal effect of third grade retention under Florida’s test-based promotion policy on student outcomes through high school.

They found that retention in third grade had large positive effects on reading and math achievement in the short run. Although these initial benefits faded over time, students who had been held back entered high school performing at a higher level relative to their grade level than similar students who’d been promoted. They needed less remediation, and they earned higher grades while enrolled. Being retained had no effect on students’ chances of graduating.

“This is the best evidence to date on the impact of retention on a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school, the chief concern raised by critics of test-based promotion policies,” says West. “At least in Florida, we can now definitively show the absence of negative effects.”

The Nuances

“It is important to note that we are not saying that the students who were retained in Florida were clearly better off as a result,” says West.

For example, the results showed that third grade retention had no effect on the likelihood that a student would enroll in post-secondary education. Retention helped students avoid remediation in high school, but it didn’t lead them to take more courses aligned with college admissions requirements.

Implications For Families And Educators

  • Retaining students based on reading proficiency can produce large improvements in academic performance when compared to grade-level peers.
  • Retention is not an academic death sentence. In fact, it can lead to better preparation when entering high school.
  • Even so, additional steps may be needed to ensure that retained students’ stronger preparation translates into better results in high school.

These findings are only one component of a comprehensive analysis of the merits of test-based promotion policies, West adds. Such policies aim to provide incentives for educators and parents to help low-performing students improve their skills before third grade. More work is needed to understand the extent to which these policies achieve that goal, he says.

From Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at www.gse.harvard.edu/uk.


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