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Grade Retention Doesn't Work

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Grade retention is making a comeback. The Chicago public schools and other districts across the country have decided in recent months to get tough with underperforming students by making them repeat a grade. President Clinton, in his 1997 State of the Union Address, encouraged the wide-scale retention or nonpromotion of students who earn low scores on standardized tests when he urged reliance on test scores as a means "to help us end social promotion ... for no child should move from grade school to junior high or junior high to high school until he or she is ready."

But despite the current vogue, educators, parents, policymakers, and taxpayers should feel apprehensive about increased reliance on retention as an instrument of reform. While we agree that proactive reform to improve educational performance is a good idea, grade retentionat least as it's typically implementedis not the answer.

Since the early 1970s, scores of studies have demonstrated that retention does not have positive effects for most low-achieving students. Recent studies, including our own analyses of Chicago data, indicate that grade retention does not improve students' chances for educational success. In fact, they indicate that retention often is harmful to scholastic development, especially if it occurs early. There are three reasons why grade retention is an ineffective educational policy for most students.

First, the decision to retain is often made haphazardly and for nonacademic reasons. The fact that boys, minorities, low-income children, and children rated low in social adjustment are more likely to be retained, even after considering academic performance, suggests that some children may be singled out unfairly. Moreover, the use of arbitrary cut-off scores on standardized tests to determine retention status is not only restrictive but holds students alone responsible for what may in fact be caused by poor instruction or disruptive learning environments.

Second, retained children do not do better academically after they are made to repeat a grade. Our own ongoing longitudinal study of 1,539 Chicago schoolchildren who graduated from public kindergartens in 1986 indicates that children who are retained do not improve their academic performance relative to other students their age or the other students in their grade. In a study just completed, we found that over time the students fall further and further behind--by as much as eight months in achievement at the end of elementary school. Students who are retained because they are among the lowest-performing students in their original grades commonly are again found near the bottom of the test-score ladder when compared with their new same-grade peers.

The fact that boys, minorities, and low-income children are more likely to be retained suggests that some children may be singled out unfairly.

Finally, grade retention is an unwise policy because it has the unintended effect of contributing to the school dropout problem. The well-documented link between being retained in a grade and dropping out of school has received an insufficient amount of attention. Many students (including those who do well in school) find that 13 years of school is long enough. For retained students, though, the finish line is much farther down the road. In our research, grade retention greatly increased the likelihood of a student's dropping out of school. In comparing students with similar academic profiles beginning in the early grades, we found that 30 percent of those in our sample who were retained had dropped out of school by age 17. Only 21 percent of students who were not retained had dropped out by this age. Thus, grade retention was associated with a 42 percent increase in early school departure. This relation between retention and dropping out also has been found in other studies. If a parallel negative side effect were found for a drug treatment or medical procedure, there would be an uproar of protest. Not in education.

We appreciate the fact that the threat of grade retention may serve as a "stick" in some cases for students to perform better and for teachers and administrators to offer better instruction. The threat of required participation in intensive annual summer school programs may be equally effective while offering students additional learning opportunities. Once students are retained, however, they usually get no special help with their schooling. They are often placed in low academic tracks only to repeat the previous year's instruction and ultimately disengage from school.

Although evidence from 25 years of research shows that grade retention is ineffective, promoting low-achieving children without remediation isn't the answer either. Alternatives to retention or social promotion include promotion plus tutoring, summer school, or increased parent involvement, as well as offering nongraded instructional programs. But preventing learning problems before they get started is the optimal and most cost-effective intervention strategy. And this requires a long-term commitment.

Alternatives to retention or social promotion include promotion plus tutoring, summer school, or increased parent involvement, as well as offering nongraded instructional programs.

One example of a successful alternative strategy is the Chicago public schools' own Child Parent Center and Expansion Program, a 30-year-old comprehensive intervention effort from preschool to 3rd grade that emphasizes basic skills, parent involvement, and small class sizes. One of the great benefits of a child's participation in this program, we have found, is that that he or she will be much less likely than nonparticipants to repeat a grade and to receive special education services, primarily because the program improves children's school achievement and family involvement in learning. Expansion of such prevention programs to include as many children as possible will lessen the need for remedial programs and practices like grade retention. Successful programs like these deserve top funding priority.

In medicine, treatments shown to be ineffective or to have serious unintended consequences do not gain approval from government agencies and are discarded or revised. Retention as an educational treatment has not followed such established scientific traditions. Children with learning difficulties have the most to lose from such a practice. We urge educational professionals to implement programs and reform strategies that have proven effective.

Arthur Reynolds and Judy Temple are researchers at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ann McCoy is a postdoctoral fellow at the university.

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