Retention — and remediation — can help students

Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating? asks a Brookings policy brief by Harvard Professor Martin West. Probably not.

Two years after retention at the end of third grade, Florida students who just missed being promoted do better academically than slightly higher-performing classmates who went on to the next grade.

The positive impact of retention on reading achievement is as large as 0.4 standard deviations, an amount which exceeds a typical year’s worth of achievement growth for elementary school students. The impact of retention on math achievement is roughly half as big, perhaps because the remedial services provided to students before and during the retention year focus primarily on reading.

While the benefits fade out by seventh grade, “the retained students continue to perform markedly better than their promoted peers when tested at the same grade level,” West writes. “Although it is too soon to analyze the policy’s effects on students’ ultimate educational attainment and labor-market success,” he thinks “retention and remediation of struggling readers can be a useful complement to broader efforts to reduce the number of students reading below grade level.”

In an earlier post on Florida’s retention policy, I wrote that I wanted to know more about what schools do for students repeating a grade. As it turns out, Florida requires schools to do quite a bit.

First, retained students must be given the opportunity to participate in their district’s summer reading program. Schools must also develop an academic improvement plan for each retained student and assign them to a “high-performing teacher” in the retention year. Finally, retained students must receive intensive reading interventions, including ninety uninterrupted minutes daily of research-based reading instruction (a requirement that has since been extended to all students in grades K-5).

Retention doesn’t seem to help in middle school. In a Chicago study, retention helped third graders, had no effect on sixth graders and increased the likelihood that eighth graders would drop out, adds West.

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  1. Our district doesn’t retain students in middle or high school, but a few years ago, the local district here started classifying students on the basis of actual credits earned rather than what year they were in high school (4th year being traditionally a senior), instead, a ton of students who were 18 found themselves being reclassified as freshmen or sophomores based on the classes they had actually managed to pass.

    I’ve NEVER been a fan of social promotion, due to the fact that in the private sector, if you don’t pass muster, you don’t get the promotion, and that’s the way it should be in grades K-12.


  2. Did I miss a mention of test scores? Do the kids in fact learn more?

  3. How do they control for the fact that students who are retained are probably more likely to drop out than other students even if they aren’t retained?

  4. Retention would be a non-issue if schools put students on self-paced curricula. Performance would jump, also. Students will work for freedom.

  5. Great Post! I too feel that retaining of a student in early classes is far more better than retaining them at higher classes. It is the duty of the school to look after a child’s progress in each academic year. Therefore, students should see retention in a positive manner, as ultimately it is for the betterment of the students.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Jessica. Students aren’t going to see retention in a positive manner, except for losers who consider it some kind of street cred.
    Considering the rate at which kids mature through, say, fourth grade, it would be useful to look at their age by month.
    My kids, twins, did very well in school. Partly, I think, it was because they were three weeks preemie coming in–or out–just before the relevant date, giving us the option to wait a year. Since maturation begins at conception, they were ahead of many of their classmates, which was manifest from about first grade on, in judgment, academics, and athletics. The advantage would be, I imagine, about six months. Getting a good start in early el meant an advantage which, even after maturation slowed in HS, they still were ahead.
    I, on the other hand, started at four years old and would have done better to wait a year.
    IMO, age by month should be a subject of research–no conclusions yet–in issues of poor performance compared to one’s classmaes.

  7. Who wouldn’t do better after taking a “summer reading program, being the focus of a personalized “academic improvement plan,” and having a “‘high-performing teacher’ in the retention year” during which they “receive intensive reading interventions, including ninety uninterrupted minutes daily of research-based reading instruction”? I’d want my child to be retained, too.