Why Retention Is NOT the Answer

Holding Kids Back is Ineffective and Can Be Harmful

  When standardized test scores are low, schools often use them to determine whether or not a student should pass on to the next grade with his or her peers.  The benefits of repeating a grade do not outweigh the costs.  Short-term improvements are lost as new material is presented.
  Not only is this practice ineffective at improving academic performance, it can have long-term harmful effects on a studentís social, emotional, and academic outcomes such as:

·  Reduced confidence and self esteem,
·  Increased behavior problems
·  Higher dropout rates
·  Lower academic and employment outcomes
·  Decreased likelihood of receiving a diploma or going on to college
·  Lower pay per hour

 A very important study by Jimerson (1999) followed kids for 21 years.  It included students who were held back in school, low-achieving students who were not held back, and control (average) students.  It showed that students who are held back had a higher probability of poorer educational and employment outcomes during late adolescence.  The low scoring students who were not held back turned out no different from the average scoring students.  This means that even students who have low scores can eventually catch up to their higher scoring peers!

Why is it so important for students not to be held back?

 During childhood and adolescent development, social and emotional adjustment can be extremely important.  Being a part of a peer group has implications for social development that extend into adulthood.  Academics are not the only factor in adult success.  When children are held back in school they donít remain with the same peer group, which makes social adjustment more difficult.  Emotionally, they feel inferior to others.  They lose motivation to try in school because they have already been labeled as incompetent.  This is likely to lead to higher dropout rates and poorer grades.  Without emotional and social stability, kids donít do well in school, no matter how smart they are or how well taught.  These problems are even more difficult to address once a student reaches adolescence.  Parents and teachers canít afford to wait until middle school or high school to solve these problems.

 Prevention, Intervention, and Alternative Solutions

How can we prevent kids from getting behind in school?  One way is to know who is most likely to have problems.  Studies have shown several predictors of students being held back in school such as:

·  Low test scores and grades at early levels
·  Boys are more likely than girls to be held back
·  Low parental involvement in childís education
·  The number of times a child has changed schools

If we know what to look for, we can be more successful at preventing low grades and scores instead of trying to improve them later.  These predictors tell us that we should intervene at earlier grades, pay more attention to boys with academic problems, increase parental participation and involvement, and provide attention to and adjustment for kids who have changed schools.  It is tough for teachers to get parents involved, sometimes especially the ones whose children perform poorly.

Psychologists and educators have offered many Alternative Solutions such as:

·  Improving and increasing professional development for better teacher performance
·  Providing targeted and timely support to students with academic problems
·  Interaction with students of varying ages and achievement levels
·  Restructuring the curriculum of early grades to reflect the developmental stages of learning
·  Providing extra assistance programs such as tutoring, classroom interventions, and special programs
·  Increasing the influence teachers have in the decision making process and understanding the influence of state and local school policies on these decisions
·  Adopting an orientation toward learning and student progress with consideration to the rate and manner in which children naturally learn.
For example:  Using the amount of progress a student has made over the year as the basis of achievement evaluation.

Teachers know their students on a much closer level than standardized tests do!

Amber Watts
Wake Forest University
Dept. of Psychology

Bracey, G. (1999).  Failing ChildrenóTwice.  Education Week, 18, 42.
Hartke, K. (1999).  The misuse of tests for retention.  Thrust for Educational Leadership, 28, 22-24.
Falkenberg, B. A. (1997).  Grade retention and promotion practices in elementary school:  A qualitative investigation.  Dissertation Abstracts International: Humanities and Social Sciences, 57,  3817.
Gordon, T. (1999). Retention is no way to boost reading.  Education Week, 18, 42+.
Jimerson, S. (1999).  On the failure of failure: examining the association between early grade retention and education and employment outcomes during late adolescence.  Journal of School Psychology, 37, 243-272.
 Jimerson, S., Carlson, E., Rotert, M., Egeland, B., Sroufe, L. A. (1997).  A prospective, longitudinal study of the correlates and consequences of early grade retention.  Journal of School Psychology, 35, 3-25.
 McCoy, A. R., Reynolds, A. J. (1999).  Grade retention and school performance: an extended investigation.  Journal of School Psychology, 37, 273-298.
Meisels, S. & Liaw, F. (1993).  Failure in Grade: Do retained students catch up?  Journal of Educational Research, 87, 69-77.


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This page last updated June 15, 2000.