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.