Are charters holding students back at high rates and, if so, how might that affect their outcomes?

In an article published in the November 2010 issue of The American Prospect, The Hechinger Report takes a look at whether charter schools tend to hold students back more often than regular public schools do, and what that might mean for student outcomes. The research on retaining students – particularly if they’re older – has linked the practice to lower achievement and higher dropout rates. But it could be that charters are different than large districts that choose to end “social promotion,” the practice of passing students to the next grade level even if they’re low-performing, in order to keep them with peers of the same age. We looked in detail at the research and at what is happening in two charter schools in New York City.

Here’s an excerpt from the story. To read the entire piece, visit The American Prospect online or buy the Nov. 2010 issue.

In keeping with their focus on rigorous academics and accountability, many charter schools have adopted strict “retention” policies requiring struggling students to repeat a grade when they don’t meet expectations, sometimes even if they’re just a point shy of passing. Amari’s experience has become common in some of the highest-performing charter schools across the country. Charter-school advocates say this allows them to help students who are far below grade level to catch up. It may also give charters an edge over regular public schools on test scores. Even so, retention policies have gotten little attention in the debate over whether to expand the number of charters, although strict student-retention policies flout the education research. Studies have found that in the long term, students who are held back in middle or high school learn less and are more likely to drop out.

Although there are no national statistics tracking the percentage of students held back in charters, there is evidence that the number is large. Schools in charter hotspots like New York and Houston report retention rates as high as 23 percent, much higher than the district averages, which range from 1 percent to 4 percent. Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which conducted a major national study on charter-school performance, says she’s observed that charter schools tend to hold students back at higher rates than regular public schools. And a recent national study by Mathematica, a research firm based in Princeton, New Jersey, found that a sample of KIPP middle schools, the biggest charter network in the country, had a significantly higher retention rate than traditional public schools.

High retention rates can help to boost test scores at charter schools, at least in the short term. Students may do better on tests the second time, and retained students’ scores are dropped from their cohort, so a class of students could improve its test scores over time because the lowest performers have been removed. And sometimes low performers simply leave the charter school when they find out they’re going to be held back. While retention may help schools look better, the price may be students’ long-term success.

A NOTE: This story used data from New York City collected by Kim Gittleson of, who wrote about attrition and retention rates in an earlier blog post on that site.