Study: Retention works in Florida

Flunking works in Florida, concludes Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. To pass from third to fourth grade, students must pass a test. Those who are held back “eceive a rigorous remediation regime aimed at improving their long-term performance.”

By studying the long-term performance of children who just barely passed the test, as well as those who were just barely left behind, it was possible to compare two essentially identical populations: one set of students who moved forward despite only borderline understanding of the material; and another set who stayed behind a year and received tutoring, mentoring, and other remedial interventions.

On average, the students who were remediated did better academically, in both the short and long term, than those who were promoted. Tellingly, the benefits of the remediation were still apparent and substantial through the seventh grade (which is as far as the data can be tracked at this point).

Previous research has found “strong negative consequences” for retention, Winters concedes. He thinks prior studies have used flawed methods.

I’d like to know more about what Florida does for kids who are held back.

I’m tutoring a first grader who’s having a lot of trouble with reading. The teacher thinks she should repeat the grade — she’s one the younger kids — but school policy forbids it because English is the girl’s second language.

About Joanne


  1. “and received tutoring, mentoring, and other remedial interventions.” How is this a reliable study of the effects of being held back? Clearly they’ve done much more than just “hold the students back,” they’ve given the students a very different experience with much more support. What if they identified these students the first time, early in the year, and provided this support to them, instead of providing it after-the-fact?

    • Why not in kindergarten or first grade? It seems likely that many of these students have been struggling for years. It has been suggested, on other websites, that starting kids off with explicit instruction, phonics, real math etc. might prevent some of the problems, since such interventions are often used in RTI or other remediation situations.

      • tim-10-ber says:

        Agreed! But remember administrators follow the money which follows the latest fads — kids and what works be damned.

    • The study concludes that Florida’s method of retention is effective and could be copied by other states. It doesn’t say that all forms of retention are effective.

      It doesn’t seem right or left wing to me, nor do I see any bashing.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    What David said. This sounds more like Response to Intervention (RTI) than retention. What’s important here is not that they repeated a grade. In fact, they didn’t repeat what they had done before. The system identified specific things that the students needed help on and then provided some help. So the student’s experience was different the second time around–and better.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    On the other hand, it DOES suggest that it’s not ‘retention’ that produces poor outcomes–it’s a LACK of intervention. So the key is to have a means of triggering intervention and then provide high-quality intervention. It seems like in this case, retention served a triage function…

    • tim-10-ber says:

      I agree…it is a lack of intervention whenever the kids need it. Why do the kids have to suffer for a broken system? This I have never understood.

      Educate the kids…do whatever it takes but help them help themselves to master the subject…hold them back if necessary…what if they are not mature enough for the grade level? Why push them forward regardless when the educators have a chance to help.

      The system be damned…it is so busted. These kids that don’t have parents involved in their education are constantly screwed…

      Sorry…I believe in retention…did it with both of mine for maturity issues never academics. Both will tell you it was the best thing that happened to them. I believe it. I had to fight the system for the first one. The second one the teacher and I were in sync.

      Either hold kids back, bring back T- 1 or pre-first or raise the starting age of kids…test them before they enter school to see if they are truly ready…

      Teachers you know if a child is ready of not. Do the right thing for the kids not the system that could care less…

  4. The Manhattan Institute, the right-wing bullshit machine

  5. Oh, and totally predictable, he’s a professor of economics. You can bet if a “study” bashes teachers or public schools, it was done by an economics or political science graduate working for the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Korat Task Force or the Cato Institute/

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      How does this study “bash[] teachers or public schools?” It seems to say they’re doing the right thing here.

    • Mike in Texas, if you throw the bullshit flag, you need to be ready to back it up. What specifically about the study do you object to? With the language and bias you’re displaying, you’re approaching troll status.

      • Well let’s start with the assumption the state mandated tests are reliable and valid indicators of what children should be learning. I did not see any footnotes suggesting this was the case.

        And let’s go with this statement from Winters:

        The results of this study demonstrate that a test-based promotion policy structured similar to Florida’s policy should be expected to improve student performance relative to a policy of social promotion.


        Notice the author does not say it does improve achievement on a dubious measure, it says it should.

        He also goes on to criticize the actual educators who have done studies which were published in actual peer-reviewed journals and tries to disprove their conclusions using garbage research from people like Caroline Hoxby, whose paper is not peer-reviewed and no listing for where it was published is given.

      • Furthermore, he cites his own research, authored with the Wal-Mart scholar Jay p. Greene, as proof he’s right.

        He also calls into question the quality of previous research but basically says its’ no good because he says its’ no good.

        If it looks and smells like bullshit I’m calling it bullshit.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Notice the author does not say it does improve achievement on a dubious measure, it says it should.

          That’s because he’s making a prediction about something that hasn’t been tried. It’s like saying, “Swinging a baseball bat at your friend’s head should cause serious injury.”

          Peer review is not a guarantee of research quality. It does not mean that the reviewer has replicated the research or even looked at it very carefully. It simply means that the reviewer doesn’t find anything obviously wrong with it (and the reviewer is less likely to find fault the more the research agrees with her own preconceptions).

          There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with published research. It is one way science progresses.

          The 29 March issue of the British journal Nature, one of the two top scientific journals in the world (the other being the American Science) had an astounding article. You need access to a university library or a payment of $32 to read it but Reuters ran a story about it. The Reuters story begins:

          During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, C. Glenn Begley identified 53 “landmark” publications — papers in top journals, from reputable labs — for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development. Result: 47 of the 53 could not be replicated. …”It was shocking,” said Begley …

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Norm. You new around here?
    Thing is, sneering at the messenger is a cheap way of dismissing the message, even if the immediate messenger is merely quoting something else.
    On the left, nothing more is necessary.
    It’s like dismissing some unfortunate–for Obama–news by snorting “faux snooze”, as if having the news come from Fox–even if it came from other places as well–makes it false or irrelevant.

    • Ponderosa says:

      Well, NOT retaining doesn’t work –that’s certain.

      I’ve always doubted the orthodoxy that retention doesn’t work.
      And I rarely hear anyone acknowledge the likelihood that the threat of retention probably motivates a lot of students who would otherwise do NOTHING to put in some effort. The current no-tangible-consequences approach breeds slackness.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        You know, that sounds logical until you work with second semester seniors who are going all out in their efforts NOT to graduate.

    • I was just setting the ball so Roger could spike it:-)

  7. What is the problem, exactly?

    In general, I prefer schools that don’t push problems along until there is nothing you can do about them. Getting it right the first time is always much better than remediation. Unfortunately, our K-6 schools have this sense that it’s OK to pump kids along because they will learn when they are ready. They use full inclusion and curricula like Everyday Math that tells teachers to “trust the spiral”. No wonder many 5th and 6th grade teachers don’t like state testing if they get bright kids who are still struggling with the times table. Why should they be judged on helping kids meet lower grade expectations? You don’t get full inclusion for free. Either you believe in yearly expectations in mastery or you don’t.

    When I was growing up, kids feared summer school or being held back. Perhaps it wasn’t the best motivation, but at least it didn’t put off the pain until it was too late. Some want math to be a pump and not a filter, but in most cases, they just ignore problems until kids hit the big, unfixible filter later on. If they don’t see the filter, maybe they think it doesn’t exist. Then they blame the kids, and many kids believe it. Another alternative, as in our high school, is to have an algebra class that includes a skills “lab”. Of course the “lab” will help improve scores, but the real fix should come in the earlier grades. Full inclusion ignores the problem and remediation is too late. The goal should be to avoid the need for retention or remediation.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      We do a skills lab with our 9th and 10th English classes and we also find it pretty effective. Just getting the kids to engage with the curriculum (as opposed to blowing it off and just flunking through not doing any of the work) is usually the only remediation needed.

  8. Arizona’s about to start the same thing with holding back 3rd graders who don’t pass the AIMS. However, we’re not going to be doing any extra interventions for these kiddos, they’ll just get the curriculum again.

    That is just wrong….