OECD: Retention doesn’t work

Countries in which schools frequently hold back or transfer low-performing students “tend to have weaker, more expensive, and more socially inequitable education systems,”according to a new analysis (pdf) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, reports Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.

Differences in grade-retention rates explain as much as 15 percent of differences in scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 65 member and partner countries, OECD researchers concluded.

Retention rates vary significantly. U.S. schools retain more than one in 10 students.  That compares to fewer than 3 percent in Japan, Norway and Britain but 35 percent and up in Belgium, Portugal, Spain and France. Top-scoring Finland and Korea never retain students in the same grade, though both separate high school students into academic or vocational schools.

Researchers also found lower PISA scores for countries in which more schools reported they would transfer a student out of the school for low grades, special needs, or behavior problems. Ten of the countries studied reported about two of every five students attended a school “very likely” to transfer based on academics, while another 10 reported fewer than 3 percent of students attend schools that transfer for those reasons.

Retaining or transferring students can “reinforce socioeconomic inequities,” OECD researchers concluded.

Teachers in these systems may have fewer incentives to work with struggling students if they know there is an option of transferring those students to other schools. These school systems need to consider how to create appropriate incentives to ensure that some students are not “discarded” by the system.

In the U.S., Chicago and North Carolina recently ended bans on social promotion, notes Inside School Research. But Arizona and Florida now require retention for students who don’t meet third-grade reading benchmarks.



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  1. So, it turns out ‘social promotion’ was the right thing to do all along, after all

  2. How students who don’t master standards are allowed to be ‘socially promoted’ is beyond me. A perfect example of this was seen in the 20/20 piece ‘Stupid in America’ where a 18 year old black male was interviewed along with his mother in South Carolina. His mom was overly concerned about his reading ability which was practically nothing. As a test, 20/20 took the young man over to Sylvan and within 72 hours (3 days), his reading ability had jumped two (2) grade levels.

    The question 20/20 asks is ‘How did Sylvan succeed in 3 days where South Carolina hadn’t in 12 years’.

    Passing a unqualified student to the next grade when he or she isn’t prepared is a disservice to the student, his parents, the school, and the taxpayer. However, what Chicago has done (they recently got rid of retention programs there) is that the exams have been made easier, so more students pass them.


  3. causation and correlation at play: social promotion is not needed when teaching and learning are effective.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    The 1 in 10 figure for the US seems suspicious. Do they break it down by grade level? I know (anecdotally) many kindergarten students are held back – whereas many countries don’t offer kindergarten.

  5. So, it turns out ‘social promotion’ was the right thing to do all along, after all

    Beautiful example of binary thinking there, Stephen. Wrong, but beautifully so.

  6. Kronosaurus says:

    My initial question is how well did the analysis exclude other variables like our high rates of inequality? In other words, we may have a high rate of retention and it may correlate well with lower PISA scores, but did they do a good job proving causation? I am suspicious because in many Asian countries parents spend massive amounts of time on tutoring. In effect, if a child is falling behind the para-school system keeps them in check. Also, do other countries have such high ranges of variability between students as we do here? Social promotion makes sense when children are closer together in abilities. When the spread increases it makes less sense. Since the U.S. is highly unequal….well, you get the point. So, does anyone have insight into the quality of this research?

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Social promotion only works for the adults…the time to hold the kids back is kindergarten and put them in a T-1 program…hopefully after that they will be fine…

    I held both of my boys back — one at kindergarten the other at 2nd grade. They were held back for social reasons not academic…should have started a year later…

    Anyway they did fine…it is up to the parents to explain the reason and support the kids…

    Oh wait…how many kids don’t have parents that care or are involved with education…

    educators need to recommend kids be held back in the very early years…I had to fight one principal and find a teacher to help me, with the other one the teacher and i were in complete agreement…

    we need to do whatever it takes to give kids the foundation in the early years to be successful in the later years and throughout life…