It’s the end of the year and a child had poor grades in his courses all year -- now is the time to decide whether to hold him back or promote him. This is a scenario that many parents face each year. Others are told that their child isn’t ready to advance to the next grade level, whether they believe he should or not. Chances are, the decision to retain may mean creating a dropout down the road, especially if a child is retained for more than one year or is retained in a later grade, according to the Educational Testing Service.
The Decision to Retain
According to a Harvard University study of retained students from 2013, 10 percent of students in America’s classrooms are retained at least once between kindergarten and eighth grade. Proponents of retaining students believe that retention allows a student to master the material before advancing to the next level, improving their academic performance in later grades. However, those opposing retaining students believe that retention is fraught with stigmatization, which can follow the student throughout his academic career. Many times, these students face the compounding stigma of being poor and from a minority group, other common risk factors in kids who drop out of school.
When it comes to dropout rates for retained students, the numbers are not very promising. A 2004 longitudinal study of students attending Baltimore Public School found that students who were retained at least once faced a 71 percent likelihood that they would not complete high school. Being retained two or more grades was found to increase the drop out to 80 percent. Students who were retained in both elementary and middle schools dropped out at a rate of 94 percent.
When to Retain Matters
In deciding whether or not to retain a student, parents and teachers should also consider the grade level of the student. The Harvard University retention study found that retaining a student in the third grade reduced the likelihood of further retention. According to the study, there were small gains in academic achievement, which allowed retained students to catch up with their peers, even when the gains became "statistically insignificant within five years." In contrast, a 2007 study of students in Chicago Public Schools found that students who had been retained in the eighth grade had fewer chances to catch up with their peers and had a 14 percent higher probability of dropping out.
Accountability in Retention
Debra Johnson, an Illinois urban educator and reading specialist, believes holding kids accountable without looking at the performance of the schools is pointing the finger at the wrong culprit. She believes that before a student is retained, schools should ensure that the student had access to teachers who teach a rich and rigorous curriculum using differentiated instruction. Quoting a U.S. Department of Education report, Johnson says, “If students are to be held more accountable for their academic performance and held to high educational standards, schools must provide adequate opportunities for students to meet expectations on time.” Meeting those expectations on time will mean a diploma in hand and a decrease in the dropout rate as more students advance through the grades in synch with their peers.
- Harvard University: The Effects of Test-Based Retention on Student Outcomes over Time: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Florida
- Education Testing Service: One-Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities
- Children's Defense Fund: The Road to Dropping Out: Minority Students and Academic Factors Correlated with Failure to Complete High School
- The Effect of Grade Retention on High School Completion; Brian A. Jacob and Lars Lefgren
A native of Nashville, Tenn., Dannelle F. Walker is an education lawyer and policy maker. Her areas of expertise include teacher liability, educator ethics, and school operations. She holds a JD from the University of Arkansas School of Law.