Years after being retained, students have significantly lower achievement than similar students who were not retained. Many retained students never catch up to their promoted same-age peers with similarly low test scores. Whatever performance advantage retained students have over their younger, same grade peers is short-lived, as they typically fall behind these students after one or two years. Several longitudinal studies indicate that, relative to low-achieving students who are promoted to the next grade, retained students are significantly more likely to drop out of school. After accounting for socioeconomic status and prior performance, dropout rates for retained students often exceed comparable promoted students by 49% or more.
This paper addresses the following questions:
1. After children’s growth rates in achievement prior to retention (and other factors) are taken into account, is grade retention associated with significantly lower levels of school achievement and higher rates of school dropout?
2. Among children who are retained during the early school years, is participation in a comprehensive instructional intervention associated with improved school achievement and a lower likelihood of dropping out of school? Does this participation lead to better performance than promotion with remediation?
The study sample for this paper includes students who enrolled in the public schools for at least six years (from kindergarten to ninth grade) and whose school dropout status was known by age 19. Children who have left the study or cannot be located are similar to those that remain in the sample on measures of kindergarten achievement and socioeconomic status. Information on grade retention and high school completion as of January 2019 were obtained from school records. School records provided descriptive information on children including gender, race, and name of the school in which the student is enrolled at the end of each school year. Standardized test scores in reading and math were obtained annually from the beginning of kindergarten through ninth grade. Teacher and parent surveys were used to obtain information on classroom adjustment, parent involvement, and family background. Two measures of educational attainment were used in analyzing the effects of retention. Data were collected from school records, surveys, and interviews from youth and, if necessary, their parents.
Before investigating the association between grade retention and high school completion or dropout, a comprehensive set of predictors of retention was examined, including child and family background, early adjustment indicators (kindergarten and first grade academic performance and achievement), and intervening school experiences (e.g., school mobility and special education placement). In order of magnitude, the following factors increased the odds of being retained: low family income (children eligible for a subsidized lunch had twice the risk of retention than those not eligible); sex of child (boys had twice the risk of retention ), and number of school moves from ages 10 to 14. The following factors decreased the odds of being retained: overage at kindergarten entry, number of years of average or better parent involvement in school, reading and math achievement in first grade, grade in reading in first grade, and math achievement in kindergarten. Findings that the number of school moves increases the risk of retention and parent involvement in school decreases the risk are relatively new, and especially significant. Variables such as race/ethnicity, parent education, years of CPC intervention, residence in a high-poverty school attendance area, and special education placement were not associated with retention. Findings indicate that grade retention-no matter when it occurs-is associated with significantly lower levels of school achievement and higher rates of school dropout. The students who were retained fell further behind their similarly low-achieving former classmates as early as kindergarten and first grade. By the end of their eighth-grade year, retained students were 1 to 2 years behind these former classmates. Retained students had a rate of school dropout that was 24% higher than that of promoted students (controlling for preretention achievement growth and other factors).
Does grade retention harm students, or are the large estimated adverse effects of grade retention due at least in part to the difficulty in controlling for observed and unobserved differences between retained and promoted students that may be correlated with later educational attainment? The main strength of this study was the inclusion of a variety of preretention control variables such as achievement at different times that take account of such differences. Results indicated that, although there were substantial differences between the unadjusted and adjusted models, both indicated a significant link between grade retention and school dropout rates as well as lower rates of school completion. The finding that students who were retained in the first three grades did not benefit academically from 1 to 3 years of participation in the Child-Parent Center program suggests that retention plus remediation strategies may not prevent the typical achievement declines that have been shown for simple grade retention without remediation. Indeed, the CPC follow-on intervention is more comprehensive and longer-lasting than most remedial services that retained students receive under many current retention practices in schools. Moreover, comparable students who were promoted (instead of retained) and then participated in intervention for 1 to 3 years had substantial performance advantages over retained students who participated in the intervention. Grade retention is a response to academic problems. Little attempt is made to address the underlying conditions such as low motivation, poverty, poor nutrition, or inadequate instruction that cause underachievement. It would be surprising if retention or limited retention-plus policies substantially altered children’s achievement. Underachieving children require educational experiences that affect their rates of early learning.
Contrast this reactive approach to intervention with prevention. Instead of waiting until the early signs of academic failure are evident, proactive education support would seek to promote the skills and attitudes needed for mastery of the grade-level curriculum before learning difficulties are observed. Prevention programs do this by addressing the underlying causes that give rise to underachievement such as building language and literacy skills before formal reading instruction, instilling pride in achievement, enhancing motivation to learn, and promoting family-school partnerships to help reinforce learning at home. Not surprisingly, programs that succeed in these areas are associated with higher levels of school achievement and lower rates of grade retention. The importance of prevention is easily lost in an era of school accountability and high-stakes testing, which highlight children’s learning difficulties. Given the consistent evidence that retention is not an effective strategy for improving children’s school success and growing evidence that retention plus remediation strategies do little to enhance children’s achievement, the alternatives to retention appear to deserve much higher funding priority than they currently receive. Among these alternatives are universal access to high quality preschool education, full day kindergarten programs, reduced class sizes in the early grades, family-school partnerships that provide family resource centers in schools, and school restructuring programs. Investments in preschool education have shown among the most positive long-term effects on the school success of children at risk. One of the most consistent findings in the 34 years of research is that participation in preschool programs for low-income, at-risk children reduces the need for grade retention in the elementary grades. Only increased funding for such programs can help break the cycle of school failure that many children face.