In this new column, Jane L. David shares with readers what research says about the effectiveness of current education reforms.
In the coming months, David will examine the research behind such approaches as incentives to attract teachers to high-poverty schools and small learning communities. In framing the issues and drawing conclusions, she will draw on articles from peer-reviewed journals and reports from research institutions as well as her own 35 years of experience studying schools and districts.
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Today's expectation that all students will meet high standards has contributed to a backlash against "social promotion." In this environment, grade retention has been making a comeback.
What's the Idea?
Educators and policymakers have debated for decades whether struggling students benefit more from repeating a grade or from moving ahead with their same-age peers. The argument for retention is that students who have not met grade-level criteria will fall further and further behind as they move through the grades. A failing 2nd grader, retention advocates argue, would be better served by repeating 2nd grade than by moving on to 3rd grade. Surely a student who could not succeed in 2nd grade will have an even harder time succeeding in 3rd grade.
What's the Reality?
School systems cannot hold back every student who falls behind; too many would pile up in the lower grades. Moreover, it is expensive to add a year of schooling for a substantial number of students. Therefore, in practice, schools set passing criteria at a level that ensures that most students proceed through the grades at the expected rate.
Although solid statistics are hard to come by, estimates of the number of students retained at least once in their school career range from 10 to 20 percent. Black students are more than twice as likely to be held back as white students, and boys twice as likely as girls (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).
In the past, teacher judgment played a larger role in decisions about individual students. More recently, in the context of high-stakes testing, states and urban districts have begun formalizing and tightening requirements for promotion, often using a single test score. Drawing such a line in the sand aims to limit teacher discretion to promote students who are struggling academically; it also aims to motivate students to work harder to avoid retention. Policymakers believe that stricter requirements for promotion will increase the proportion of students likely to meet standards at higher grade levels.
What's the Research?
Published research on retention is vast. Hundreds of studies have been carried out during the last century, most focused on the elementary grades. As with any large body of research, the studies ask different questions, look at different consequences, and are fraught with methodological problems. It's tricky in most cases to determine whether the students in the study would have fared better if they had been promoted instead of retained.
Jackson (1975) reviewed 44 studies that met a minimal set of methodological criteria. Finding few with significant results or even compelling patterns, he concluded that the evidence was insufficient to support the claim that grade retention is more beneficial than grade promotion. About 10 years later, Holmes and Matthews (1984) reviewed an additional 44 studies that all included some type of comparison group of students. These researchers concluded that promoted students had higher academic achievement, better personal adjustment, and more positive attitudes toward school than retained students did.
Moving ahead another 17 years, Jimerson (2001) summarized the historical research and added a carefully culled set of studies conducted between 1990 and 1999, all of which included comparison groups of promoted students. Most of the comparisons showed no significant differences between promoted and retained students on measures of achievement or personal and social adjustment. In those studies that did show a difference, the results favored the promoted students, especially on measures of achievement.
Recent studies have investigated retention in the context of state and district policies to require students to achieve a certain score for promotion. For example, Roderick and Nagaoka (2005) studied the effects of the Chicago Public Schools policy that bases promotion in grades 3, 6, and 8 on standardized test scores. Using comparison groups of students who just missed the promotion cutoff, these researchers found that 3rd graders struggled during the repeated year, had higher rates of special education placement, and two years later showed no advantage over those who had been promoted. Retained 6th graders had lower achievement growth than similar students who were not retained.
Retention can increase the likelihood that a student will drop out of school. Students who drop out are five times more likely to have been retained than those who graduate (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). Using data from Chicago, Jacob and Lefgren (2007) concluded that students retained in 8th grade were more likely to drop out than their peers, a finding that was not true for retained 6th graders. They speculated that the 6th graders had more opportunities to catch up.
Studies with the strongest research methods compare students who were retained with similar students who were not retained. They ask whether repeating a grade makes a difference in achievement as well as personal and social adjustment over the short run and the long run. Although individual studies can be cited to support any conclusion, overall the preponderance of evidence argues that students who repeat a grade are no better off, and are sometimes worse off, than if they had been promoted with their classmates.
A major weakness in the research on retention is documenting the educational experiences of students who are retained. Roderick & Nagaoka (2005) argue that retention under high-stakes testing presumes the problem lies with the student, not with the school. If the goal of retention is to provide an opportunity for students to catch up, the quality and appropriateness of their academic experiences is likely to be the determining factor. After all, why should repeating the same experience produce a different result?
What's One to Do?
For most students struggling to keep up, retention is not a satisfactory solution. Nor is promotion. Juxtaposing the two as if these are the only options casts the debate in the wrong terms. The challenge is figuring out what it takes to help failing students catch up. Understanding why a particular student has fallen behind points to the best course of action.
For many students, especially those who start school far behind their peers, intensive intervention, even prior to kindergarten, may be the best path to success. For students who are frequently absent, understanding and addressing the reasons for their absences might be the solution.
Retention usually duplicates an entire year of schooling. Other options—such as summer school, before-school and after-school programs, or extra help during the school day—could provide equivalent extra time in more instructionally effective ways. Without early diagnosis and targeted intervention, struggling students are unlikely to catch up whether they are promoted or retained.
Holmes, C. T., & Matthews, K. M. (1984). The effects of nonpromotion on elementary and junior high school pupils: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 54(2), 225–236.
Jackson, G. B. (1975). The research evidence on the effects of grade retention. Review of Educational Research, 45(4), 613–635.
Jacob, B., & Lefgren, L. (2007). The effect of grade retention on high school completion
(Working Paper No. 13514). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Available:
Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30(3), 420–437.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). The condition of education: Grade retention [Online article]. Washington, DC: Author. Available:
Roderick, M., & Nagaoka, J. (2005). Retention under Chicago's high-stakes testing program: Helpful, harmful, or harmless?
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(4), 309–340.
Jane L. David is Director of the Bay Area Research Group, Palo Alto, California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author, with Larry Cuban, of Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer's Guide to School Reform (Education Week Press, 2006).
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