Two years in first grade

If Johnny can’t read by the end of first grade, should he repeat the grade or move on with his friends? Texas schools are struggling with the question, reports the Houston Chronicle. Most studies show students who are held back never catch up, but some educators think retention helps if it’s done before students fall too far behind.

A study by University of Houston sociology professor Gary Dworkin showed that students who were held back because they failed Texas’ standardized test went on to greater academic and social success.

“Higher retention rates, when it’s done very early, ends up to be somewhat beneficial to the kids, as opposed to doing nothing or to socially promoting them and hoping they pick up the material,” Dworkin said.

“The best we could say is that it was not harmful in ways that earlier studies conveyed,” Dworkin said.

Some schools are trying “partial promotion,” which lets students take most classes with students their own age but do remedial work in reading or math. Texas is trying intensive reading remediation in the summer for first graders who aren’t quite ready for second grade.

Even if holding students back doesn’t help them catch up, it arguably helps teachers and other students by narrowing the range of skills in higher grades.

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  1. This is an interesting question, one which may differ from boys to girls. I think that boys may improve in the short term but that the effects of being held back seem to have a delayed effect on academic interest. I think that, due to boys’ great concern for competence in relation to their peers, they often begin to count their academic achievements as cheap, thinking to themselves, “Well sure I got an A, but I am really supposed to be in the next grade up, so this is not really a big deal…in fact it is stupid…in fact, i don’t think I am going to put that much energy into it…etc etc…”

    At least that has been the institutional experience of the school where I teach.

  2. What’s missing from this discussion is the reading curriculum being taught to the boys. If it’s shoddy (and often it is) then holding them back does no good at all. Instead of wringing our hands over retaining or not retaining struggling readers, lets wring our hands over the curricula we’re using to teach them.

  3. When they say “catch back up” do they mean with their age-mates?

    I’d hope not – I’d hope they’d still be driving on.

    But the more important question is: after being held back, do the _keep up_ with the class they now belong to?

    Don’t promote until the work can be done succesfully.

  4. May I speak from experience?
    I went to St. John’s in Peabody, MA, and I was held back in the second grade. Now, I have a BA and MA and was in the 98th percentile for understanding English on the GRE.
    I was totally bored with school. I read all the textbooks the first week of each class (that doesn’t mean I mastered spelling or math); these were _good_ textbooks because the school had no money and we had to use books left over from the 1930s.
    Having to repeat the second grade forced me to actually concentrate on classwork and doing the mickey mouse needed to go on to the third grade. I remained bored throughout grammar school, but I did enough work to get into high school. I learned enough not to let my mind wander too much.
    Was I disruptive? Well, I sort of remember the incident where I called my second grade teacher an ‘octopus,’ and I learned quickly not to let them see me reading comic books in class behind the textbooks (the teacher did return my “Johnny Tremaine” comic, though.)
    The classes were all male. The teachers were nuns of the Sisters of Notre Damme, who brooked no uppityness from male or female (especially not from vile little males.) There was very little horsing around, or notes passed, and we all (except for one kid who was 19 or so when he left the 8th grade) learned the basic multiplication tables, long division, etc.
    If I hadn’t been kept back that year, I probably would have continued to goof off, and would have missed out on the materials that I did find difficult. So, I’m all for keeping the dunderheads back a year, or two if necessary, just to teach them the lesson that you have to pay attention in class.


  1. Why Johnny Can’t Graduate

    Remember how so many California seniors couldn’t pass the graduation exam, you know, that exam that tested EIGHTH-GRADE math skills, that exam? Do you wonder how that could possibly have happened? Here, in a nutshell, is why: