This spring, 3rd graders in several states are taking tests that could change their lives. Based on how youngsters in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio score on their 3rd grade reading assessments, they will either move on to 4th grade or be required by law to repeat 3rd grade. (Oklahoma lawmakers recently postponed by a year enactment of a similar policy.)
Retaining children who are behind grade level is not a new practice. But, until recently, the decision has typically been made at the local level, often between teachers and parents. Increasingly, though, state laws are requiring that students be held back automatically based on their performance on 3rd grade reading assessments—regardless of what teachers and parents think is best.
State-mandated retention statutes are being enacted at a dizzying pace by legislatures across the country. In 2012, 13 states adopted laws targeting early reading achievement, many of which require schools to hold back elementary school students based on reading assessments. At least 10 other states have considered or are considering similar laws.
The model most frequently cited as the basis for state-mandated retention is a Florida statute enacted in 2002, part of a comprehensive package of reforms, beginning in 1999, that also included A-F grading of schools and an investment in academic interventions, pre-K, and summer programs. The overall results appeared to be significant: Fourth grade reading proficiency, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, increased from 22 percent of students in 2002 to 30 percent in 2013, a greater increase than seen in national 4th grade proficiency rates, which grew from 29 percent to 34 percent.
The gains may have had little to do with the retention policy, however. Research cannot determine which of the Florida strategies, if any, was responsible for generating these gains. The only formal evaluation of Florida’s state-mandated retention policy, a 2007 study by the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, was not able to disentangle the impact of retention from that of Florida’s other reforms. The study also acknowledged that prior research comparing different strategies had found retention to have no effect on reading achievement after two years.
In addition to the absence of evidence on the effect of state-mandated retention in Florida, an examination of the best research conducted on the effects of retention demonstrates that the policy is most likely counterproductive.
A majority of peer-reviewed studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated that holding students back yields little or no long-term academic benefits and can actually be harmful to students. When improvements in achievement are linked to retention, they are not usually sustained beyond a few years, and there is some evidence for negative effects on self-esteem and emotional well-being.
Moreover, there is compelling evidence that retention can reduce the probability of high school graduation. According to a 2005 review of decades of studies by Nailing Xia and Elizabeth Glennie: “Research has consistently found that retained students are at a higher risk of leaving school earlier, even after controlling for academic performance and other factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, family background, etc.”
The authors went on to note that retention’s effect on dropout rates was also “associated with decreased lifetime earnings and poorer employment outcomes in the long run.”
Even the Florida experience is consistent with evidence that state-mandated retention may, at best, have only short-term benefits. While 4th grade reading proficiency in Florida increased by 8 percentage points from 2002 to 2013, 8th grade proficiency increased by only 3 percentage points. And, as of 2013, Florida still rated below the national average for 8th grade reading proficiency.
When a strategy fails to work, the solution is not to do it again; it is to change the strategy.”
State-mandated retention seems like a common-sense strategy to ensure that students’ reading achievement is on grade level. The alternative typically posed in political circles is social promotion, and who can argue for passing children on grade after grade regardless of whether they are ready for the material they will be expected to learn in the next grade?
But retention does not help most children who have fallen behind, primarily because they are exposed to the same material in the same way that didn’t work for them the first time around. When a strategy fails to work, the solution is not to do it again; it is to change the strategy.
Happily, there are more effective and less expensive alternatives. The cost of having a student repeat 3rd grade is several times greater than alternatives such as tutoring or small-group interventions, summer school, or high-quality pre-K. These approaches don’t have the negative side effects associated with retention.
Instead of giving children the same treatment that failed them the first time, alternative strategies provide different kinds of learning opportunities.
Interventions should also begin long before 3rd grade. Research has provided compelling evidence that investments in preschool can reduce retention and have positive long-term payoff for individuals and society, in contrast to the negative long-term effects of holding a student back later.
Many tutoring and summer programs in the first few grades of school have demonstrated effectiveness in helping students improve reading. Investing in improving the quality of the teaching children receive in the early grades is another less expensive alternative to retention, and it would benefit all students, not just those who are falling behind grade level.
Given what decades of research has told us, decisions to retain individual children should be made only when there is compelling evidence that it is likely to benefit the child. Until there is a body of rigorous research linking mandatory retention to long-term benefits for children, we do not recommend that states require students be held back against the wishes of parents and over the objections of educators.
Policymakers in Florida and across the country should be commended for acknowledging the importance of early reading and taking actions intended to improve achievement.
Research tells us that mastering reading (as well as math) by 4th grade is a critical factor in determining a child’s later success, both in school and in life. Let’s harness this legislative momentum and focus on implementing strategies that have been proven to be effective and offer the best chance of preparing children to be successful, confident students.
A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as Retention May Cause More Problems Than It Solves