In this era of accountability, many school systems have begun taking a harder line with regard to promotion policy, retaining students who do not make sufficient academic progress-particularly in reading and math. In many cases, the decision to retain a student is based on student performance on high-stakes standardized tests. Research has consistently shown that retention does not improve student achievement and may, in fact, have long-term negative consequences for students, because retained students are much more likely to eventually drop out than their peers. But despite these findings, many policymakers consider retention a good way to motivate students and to offer those who don’t meet appropriate standards another opportunity to learn the material. This solution is also relatively simple, as it does not require the creation and funding of new programs or services. Students not achieving the minimum cut score participate in a summer bridge program designed to help them achieve passing scores on the tests. Students who still fail to achieve the required cut score at the end of the summer bridge program are ultimately retained.
Earlier studies looked at the effectiveness of the summer bridge program and found a positive influence on student achievement. This study looks primarily at students in grades 3 and 6 who did not successfully complete the summer bridge program-failing to either achieve the cut score or participate in the program. To determine the effectiveness of the retention strategy, the authors first looked at the extent to which retained students improved their test scores. They then established three comparison analyses:
– Comparing the academic growth of students in grades 3 and 6 who just missed the standard to those students who just passed the cutoff.
– Examining the academic growth of students over the first two years of the program.
– Using a statistical model to estimate the probability of retention among students participating in the summer bridge program and the program’s effect on learning growth.
Students have five chances to advance to the next grade and avoid of retention-or, if retained, rejoin their peers:
– At the end of the academic year.
– At the end of the summer bridge program.
– During the middle of the next academic year.
– At the end of the next academic year.
– At the end of the summer bridge program held the after the retained year.
Despite these opportunities, which include two summer programs and one full instructional year, the rate of retained students eventually passing grade was low. Black students were disproportionately retained in all retention grades, with the largest inequity in the third grade. However, these retentions were largely due to prior poor achievement. Boys were slightly more likely to be retained than girls-even when controlling for prior achievement. For all retained students, the rate of special education placement was three-to-six times that of similar-performing but nonretained peers.
Three analyses were conducted to try and determine the effect of retention on student achievement. In the first comparison, the achievement of high-scoring retained students (students just missing the cutoff) was compared to the achievement of low-scoring promoted students. These comparison groups were created because the researchers felt that the students would be relatively close to each other in academic ability (the difference could be as little as one or two correctly answered questions on the exam), and thus the comparison would measure the effect of retention, and not a different artifact of achievement. One year after retention, the retained students in 3rd grade were scoring slightly higher than their promoted peers. This difference is statistically significant, suggesting some positive effect from the program. However, this effect did not last past the first year; achievement between the promoted and retained groups was not statistically different after two years. Students retained in 6th grade were significantly outperformed by their promoted peers one and two years after the retention year-in fact, the gap widened further in the second year.
In the second comparison, the researchers compared the achievement of five subgroups:
– Students who were promoted after the summer bridge program.
– Students who were retained and remained one year behind their peers.
– Students who were retained but rejoined their peers at some point during the next year.
– Students who were placed in special education.
– Students who were retained a second time.
There was little difference in achievement between the students who were promoted and those who were retained. 3rd grade students who were promoted mid-year slightly outperformed their promoted peers-however, students who were double-retained or placed in special education scored significantly lower than their promoted peers. At the 6th grade level, all groups except the mid-year promotions scored significantly below their promoted peers.
In the third comparison, researchers attempted to account for geographical and age differences in retention rates through statistical modeling. During implementation of the retention program, some regions granted more retention waivers, and-due to policy changes-the retention of similar-scoring students varied based on the year the policy was changed. This resulted in students who scored at a specific level being retained in one year, but promoted in another. By estimating the likelihood of retention or promotion at the end of the summer bridge program and comparing the predicted performance of the groups (controlled for prior achievement and demographic and school characteristics), the researchers were able to estimate the effectiveness of the retention program. They found no evidence that retention helped low-performing students in grades 3 or 6. In fact, their results showed that retention may have hurt students in 6th grade. Researchers found little or no positive effect of retention on student achievement-and, in 6th grade, retention most likely negatively effected student achievement. For all low-performing students, promoted or retained, achievement remained low.
Much of the comparative analysis within this study is not looking at the lowest performance level-rather, researchers looked primarily at a narrow band of students with similar achievement levels but differing rates of promotion. For example, very low achieving students could have significantly improved their academic performance, but still failed to achieve the necessary cut score for improvement. The retention plan also included little guidance for teachers or additional resource allocations, meaning that retained students generally had no additional support other than one year of repeated instruction and the summer bridge program. Retention programs that include other supports could have different effects on student achievement. This study only examined the short-term academic achievement of retained students; the long-term academic and social implications of the retention program were not estimated. In addition, because this study was part of a larger evaluation, and because the population was limited to retained students or those just meeting the cutoff, the study does not report on students who may have benefited from the threat of retention, or who significantly improved their performance through the summer bridge program.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer,