More states requiring students to repeat a grade: Is it the right thing to do?

Thousands of third-graders may have a sense of déjà vu on the first day of school this year: The number of states that require third-graders to be held back if they can’t read increased to 13 in the last year.

Retention policies are controversial because the research is mixed for students who are held back, but a report published on August 16th by the Brookings Institution suggests that at least for younger children who struggle with reading, repeating a grade may be beneficial.

The report, which examined a decade-old retention policy in Florida, was authored by Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He argues that “the decision to retain a student is typically made based on subtle considerations involving ability, maturity, and parental involvement that researchers are unable to incorporate into their analyses. As a result, the disappointing outcomes of retained students may well reflect the reasons they were held back in the first place rather than the consequences of being retained.”

West comes to the following conclusion:

“Retained students continue to perform markedly better than their promoted peers when tested at the same grade level and, assuming they are as likely to graduate high school, stand to benefit from an additional year of instruction.”

The spread of stricter retention policies is connected to a wider movement to ensure all children are reading proficiently by third grade. The idea is based on research showing that children who don’t reach that target are often left behind as their classes move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

(photo courtesy of David Shankbone)

Retention is not the only, or even the main, instrument in the toolbox promoted by advocates in the reading-by-third-grade movement. Intensive interventions, including pulling struggling readers out of class for individual or small-group tutorials, have become increasingly popular in many schools around the country. More states are also enshrining efforts to identify struggling readers and provide them early interventions in the law, as Education Week has reported.

Even so, the use of retention, even as a last resort for students who aren’t reading well enough on time, is still fraught with problems, many experts say. A report on third-grade literacy policies by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), published in March 2012, outlined what can go wrong with strict retention policies:

“While some researchers have found that retained students ‘can significantly improve their grade-level skills during their repeated year,’ others have found that less than half of retained students meet promotion standards after attending summer school and repeating a grade. Some research points to other negative effects, including a greater likelihood of bullying and victim behavior, or dropping out of high school.”

That is, assuming that retained students are no less likely than their peers to graduate from high school—which Professor West does—is not necessarily a good idea, according to the research.

In addition, the ECS report noted that minority and low-income students make up a disproportionate share of the students who are held back. “This raises serious questions about equity and the potential for prejudicing teachers’ attitudes toward the academic capabilities of retained students. Given these disparities, some view grade retention as punishing disadvantaged students who also may not have received the same quality of instruction as their more advantaged peers,” the ECS report said.

Educators have also questioned policies in which a decision to hold a student back is based solely on test scores.

In New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg touted his ending of “social promotion” in the 2003-04 school year, educators quietly ignored the policy change. In the years after social promotion was officially ended, the number of third-graders held back actually decreased significantly over time (from 3,601 in the first year to 480 in 2008-2009, according to the city’s statistics). This year, the mayor had a “change of heart” and ended the policy.

As one Florida superintendent, Doug Whittaker, put it to Education Week last March in a story about the spread of retention policies: “After 10 years, I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s good for kids … I don’t care how the adults frame it: The people making those decisions forget what it’s like to be 8 years old.”