Recruitment & Retention

Data Show Retention Disparities

By Caralee J. Adams, Erik W. Robelen & Nirvi Shah — March 06, 2012 12 min read
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Original data analysis was conducted by Michele McNeil and Ms. Shah.

New nationwide data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office reveal stark racial and ethnic disparities in student retentions, with black and Hispanic students far more likely than white students to repeat a grade, especially in elementary and middle school.

The contrast is especially strong for African-Americans. In the most extreme case, more than half of all 4th graders retained at the end of the 2009-10 academic year—56 percent—were black, according to the data, which account for about 85 percent of the nation’s public school population. In 3rd grade, 49 percent of those held back were black.

Those findings come even though African-American students represented less than one-fifth of the entire universe of students in the K-12 data set collected from districts.

In all, nearly 1 million students, or 2.3 percent of those enrolled, were retained across K-12, the data show. Black students were nearly three times as likely as white students to be retained, when combining all grade levels. Hispanic students were twice as likely to be held back.

The new Civil Rights Data Collection, a portion of which was provided to Education Week last week, was scheduled for public release on March 6. Collected from nearly 7,000 school districts, the data are part of an ongoing information-collection effort by the agency’s office for civil rights. In this latest round, the agency significantly expanded the type of information gathered, for the first time collecting school-by-school retention data. Several experts said they were not aware of any such national data previously being made available.

Repeating Grades

The number of students who had to repeat a grade in the 2010-11 school year spiked in 9th grade. In most grade levels, black and Hispanic students make up a large and disproportionate number of those retained, according to first-ever, nationwide data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.


SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Experts were quick to note that although the racial and ethnic disparities in retention are alarming, they are generally consistent with an abundance of prior research at the state and local levels, and have a strong correlation to achievement gaps in the United States.

“In a way, it’s hammering home the intersection of race and poverty,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. Even so, Mr. Balfanz said he was “somewhat surprised by the magnitude” of the racial gap for black students in the mid-to-upper-elementary grades.

Another area of the federal data examined by Education Week was coursetaking and passing rates in Algebra 1. Here, the data suggest that disproportionately low numbers of black 7th and 8th graders take introductory algebra.

Meanwhile, about one-quarter of all 9th and 10th graders failed algebra, the data show, with higher failure rates for black and Hispanic students than for whites and Asians.

Several researchers urged caution in interpreting algebra pass-fail rates, noting that the rigor of algebra courses varies widely and that some schools may be overly generous in giving a passing grade.

‘We Need to Know Why’

About This Report

About every two years since 1968, the U.S. Department of Education has gathered data about the nation’s schools through the Civil Rights Data Collection. The information is gathered primarily so that the department has the information it needs to enforce civil rights laws that provide for equal educational opportunities for students of different races, genders, disabilities, and English-speaking skills.

The most recent survey—for the 2009-10 school year—is the most expansive to date. It includes information from every district in the country with at least 3,000 students, as well as many smaller districts. That’s 6,835 school districts, a little less than half of all districts in the country, but accounting for 85 percent of all students.

Education Week was given exclusive access to a portion of the raw data regarding student participation in advanced math and science courses, enrollment in prekindergarten and kindergarten, success in Algebra 1 and on Advanced Placement tests, and other pieces of information. Data for all schools and districts included in the collection are expected to be available at

First-time questions in this round of the data survey included information about student retention and promotion; algebra enrollment and passing rates; participation in college-preparatory subjects, including math and science courses such as physics and calculus; teacher experience and absenteeism; school funding; harassment and bullying; restraint and seclusion; and other information about discipline.

Schools also were asked, as they have been in the past, about student enrollment; single sex classes; and single-sex sports teams. The information encompasses more than 72,000 schools that together represent about 42 million public school students. (There are approximately 50 million public school students nationwide.)

The next data collection, which will focus on the 2011-12 school year, will include every school district in the country. It is not likely to be available until 2013 or later.

The Education Department’s office for civil rights rounded the figures it collected to prevent any students’ identities from being revealed. It applied the rounding methodology, which it would not disclose, to every figure, regardless of how large or small the numbers were.

Since 1968, the Education Department’s office for civil rights—charged with protecting students of different races, disabilities, genders, and English-speaking abilities from discrimination—has gathered data from schools and districts.

The most recent data-collection undertaking, for the 2009-10 school year, is the most ambitious to date, including 6,835 school districts, more than 72,000 schools, and more than 42 million public school students. It encompasses about half of the nation’s districts, including a substantial proportion of districts with fewer students, including many rural districts.

To paint a picture of educational opportunities and equity, schools and districts are asked dozens of questions, from information on enrollment to access to Advanced Placement classes and incidents of harassment and bullying. Questions about retention and algebra were asked for the first time as part of the latest effort.

Russlynn Ali, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in an email that while offices across the federal agency use the data, they are particularly useful when the “OCR provides technical assistance to school districts on civil rights obligations, because our training can be more targeted to the particular needs of the district.”

She said the department, which provided some of the raw data to Education Week, hopes parents, community members, and others use the data to monitor schools and address areas of concern before they become major problems.

“The latest [OCR] data show, among other things, disparities in college- and career-readiness, administration of discipline, and teacher resources,” she said.

In the next round of data collection, for the 2011-12 school year, the OCR is planning to gather information from all districts nationwide.

Across all grade levels, the data show disparities in retention by race and ethnicity. The highest rate was for black students, at 4.2 percent—or nearly 318,000 students—followed by Hispanics at 2.9 percent and American Indians, at 1.9 percent. For whites, the figure was 1.5 percent, or about 317,000 students.

Retention is a controversial issue among educators and policymakers. Some states, including Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, have policies in place to retain students at particular grade levels, tying it to students’ performance on standardized tests.

Most experts seem to agree that retention alone can create difficulties for students, including a greater likelihood of dropping out of school. At the same time, some recent research has suggested that a carefully crafted retention policy, coupled with early interventions and supports for those who struggle, may help improve student achievement.

Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said it’s vital to ask what happens to those students retained.

“Are they being put back into the exact same classroom with the same instruction that wasn’t successful the first time?” she said.

All too often, she said, students don’t get the extra help they need.

“They are maybe getting it louder and slower,” she said.

Federal Analysis of New Information

The U.S. Department of Education office for civil rights found disparities in the way children of different races and ethnicities prepare for college and careers.

Access to Courses:
• More than 80 percent of high schools in the survey said they offer algebra, geometry, and biology.
• But only about half the high schools surveyed offer calculus.
• Hispanic students make up 20 percent of the students at high schools that offer calculus, but only 10 percent of the students taking the course.

Gifted and Talented Programs:
• White and Asian students make up nearly three-fourths of the students in these programs, the survey data found.

Early-Childhood Education:
• A fifth of school districts with prekindergarten programs offer them to low-income children.

• Black students represent 16 percent of middle school students in the data collection, but 42 percent of the middle school students who had to repeat their grade.
• English-language learners make up 6 percent of high school enrollment, but 12 percent of students retained, the survey data found.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, office for civil rights

The OCR’s retention data show some sharp distinctions among student subgroups, most pronounced in the elementary and middle grades.

From grades 3-10, black students represented the largest single racial or ethnic group held back. In 4th grade, they represented more than half of all students retained, and the rates were still high in some other grades. In 5th grade, 44 percent were black, and in 6th grade, 48 percent. In 8th grade, black students were 42 percent of all those retained. No grade-by-grade enrollment data were available.

“The point is that these kids are being retained out of all proportion, and we need to know why,” said Craig D. Jerald, an education consultant. “We can hypothesize. For example, do states with higher black enrollments have tougher retention policies? Is it due to some bias in how retention policies are being applied? Of course, it might be some fundamental educational issue like opportunity to master reading skills by 3rd grade.”

He added, “You have to understand what’s driving it so you can apply appropriate solutions.”

Hispanic retention rates also appeared to be disproportionately high relative to the student population in some, but not all, grade levels. In 1st grade, 39 percent of the students retained were Hispanic, the OCR data show, and at 2nd grade, 43 percent. In grade 4, however, the proportion appeared more even: 23 percent of those retained were Hispanic. Hispanics represented about 24 percent of all K-12 students in the data set.

Ms. Ali said the retention information collected “reveals problems that should concern everybody. Retention means children are not learning, and it leads to higher dropout rates.”

But, she added, “a disparity by itself does not constitute a civil rights violation.”

Other Research

National data have long pointed to significant achievement gaps across racial and ethnic lines, even as those gaps have closed somewhat over time. For example, about half of black and Hispanic students scored below the “basic” level in 4th grade reading, based on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 22 percent of white students.

Julie Marsh, a visiting associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, said the racial disparities in the retention data are deeply troubling, but shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

“It’s not inconsistent with past research on retention,” said Ms. Marsh, who also is an adjunct fellow at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp.

The Texas Education Agency recently reported, for instance, based on the 2009-10 school year, that in grades 2-5 and 8-12, African-American and Hispanic students were at least twice as likely to be retained as white students.

A recent literature review by RAND identified a variety of student characteristics associated with retention, including not only prior achievement but also family background, such as income levels and parent educational levels.

At the secondary school level, the OCR data show that overall retention rates balloon, rising from about 38,000 students at 8th grade to 251,000 in the 9th grade, far more than any earlier grade. In grade 10, the figure is 180,000.

Experts say the 9th grade bump isn’t surprising.

“We’ve always seen the highest retention rates among 9th graders,” said Mr. Jerald. “A lot of students enter high school completely unprepared, so 9th grade is a very difficult transition year. ... When students arrive in high school, they’re expected to take a lot more personal responsibility for their learning than in middle school.”

Experts also note that the issue of earning sufficient credits to graduate starts to come into play, and that if students are far behind, they may repeat the grade.

The racial contrasts in retention rates appear to relax, but not disappear, in high school. Among 9th graders retained, 35 percent were black students, compared with 31 percent Hispanic and 31 percent white. By 12th grade, in fact, 40 percent of the retained students were white, compared with 25 percent black and 31 percent Hispanic.

Some experts say one reason for that change may be that black and Hispanic students drop out of high school at disproportionate rates.

States’ Retention Policies

Education Week also analyzed retention data for five of the most populous states: California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.

Holding Students Back: A Closer Look

Three of the largest states by student enrollment illustrate the disparities in grade retention. Black and Hispanic students are often held back at higher rates than their peers.


SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Florida’s figures for 3rd graders dwarfed the others, even though its total K-12 population is far smaller than that of California and Texas. It’s important to note, however, that the state for about a decade has had a retention policy tied to performance on the reading portion of a state assessment. In all, the data show 8,790 Florida students reported as being held back in the schools surveyed. By comparison, 3,825 students were retained in Texas; 1,930 in Illinois; 1,070 in California; and 355 in New York, according to the OCR data.

About half of all Florida students retained were black, though African-Americans were only about 24 percent of the entire K-12 population reported to the OCR.

Jaryn Emhof, the communications director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said the state’s retention policy has been coupled with a variety of early interventions as well as other measures to ensure students who are held back get plenty of extra help.

“Not all retention is created equal,” she said, adding that it’s important not to look simply at retention data but also academic outcomes. And here she points to improvements in reading scores on state tests and NAEP. On the 4th grade reading NAEP, Florida has seen big gains over the past decade, though scores at the 8th grade have been flat.

Ms. Emhof also notes that Florida’s 3rd grade retention rate has declined sharply over time.

In Illinois, virtually all 3rd graders retained were black or Hispanic, with about four-fifths African-American. Eighty-two percent of 3rd graders retained were black and 18 percent Hispanic. (Almost all students retained were in Chicago, the data show, which has a policy for holding back 3rd graders based in part on test scores.)

Florida also dominated in retentions at the 7th grade, with 4,315 reported, compared with 2,655 in Texas, and fewer than 1,000 in California, Illinois, and New York.

But the figures for 9th grade tell a different story. Texas and California reported the most students retained, 30,660 and 26,260, respectively. In both cases, the vast majority of those students were Hispanic. In Florida, the survey found that 13,675 students had to repeat 9th grade, but only about one-quarter of those held back were Hispanics, roughly in line with the reported K-12 enrollment of Hispanics.

In the total K-12 data set, Florida’s student population was 2.6 million, compared with 5.7 million for California and 4.2 million in Texas.

Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said that he sees some reason for concern in the retention data, suggesting there may be a need to re-examine retention policies if they disproportionately affect minority students.

Passing Algebra

The data Education Week examined for Algebra 1 seem to suggest uneven enrollments across racial and ethnic groups in the middle school years, when some students take algebra.

Solving the Equation

The federal Education Department collected information about how many students took algebra 1 and how many students passed the course by the end of the 2009-10 school year. This shows how 9th and 10th grade students included in the survey—which comprised 85 percent of public school students—fared.


SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

In grades 7-8, about 11 percent of students taking Algebra 1 were black, while in the full data set, black students represented about 18 percent of the total in the data set. The enrollment rate for Hispanic students was more closely aligned with overall representation in the population: 21 percent enrolled, compared with 24 percent in the total student sample across all grade levels.

The differences appeared fairly small for passing rates. About 86 percent of white students in grades 7-8 passed, compared with 79 percent of black students and 78 percent of Hispanics.

Recent NAEP data reveal large achievement gaps in 8th grade math. They show that 49 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students scored below basic, compared with 16 percent of white students.

Experts note that, typically, students who take algebra in middle school are more advanced and prescreened, though California has taken steps to ensure that most middle schoolers take the subject.

Meanwhile at grades 9-10, about 24 percent of all students failed algebra, the OCR data show. And here, the differences among racial and ethnic groups were more pronounced. About 81 percent of white students passed, compared with 70 percent of both black and Hispanic students.

As for students in grades 11-12, the data show that a greater share of black students, 78 percent, passed algebra than any other group.

Tom Loveless, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, said district data on algebra passing rates need to be taken with a grain of salt.

“Passing rates are a poor indicator of whether students have mastered algebra or any other subject matter,” he said. “We know that students are often passed along who not only do not know algebra, but who also do not know content that they should have known years before. A good end-of-course test is the best indicator of learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Data Show Retention Disparities


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