Jenny, a third-grade girl, commented after receiving the results of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, “I cried repeatedly when I heard the news, and so did my mom.” Jenny had failed the high-stakes test necessary for promotion and as a result was required by state rules to repeat third grade. Jenny now considers herself a failure and a loser.
Perhaps the negative psychological toll on retained students could be justified if the results of retention had significant positive outcomes. However, this is not the case. Children and adolescents who are retained are at a much greater risk of dropping out of school and have much poorer occupational outcomes. In fact, grade retention is the one factor that most powerfully predicts dropping out.
Students retained twice or more are nearly 100 percent likely to drop out of school. It is important for school personnel to know the date of birth of children who are candidates for retention and whether or not they have already been retained. Today it is not unusual to find a fifth-grader who is two or even three years older than the other students in the class. Once they reach adulthood retained students are more likely to be unemployed, living on government assistance, or in prison compared to adults who were never retained.
A Deleterious Impact
A comprehensive meta-analysis of grade retention research from 1990 to 1999 shows the deleterious impact of leaving children behind. Twenty studies with matched control groups were included in the analysis, which looked at both the academic achievement and socio-emotional functioning of retained students. Sixteen of the 20 studies showed negative outcomes associated with grade retention. Specifically, retained students were found to be significantly below their matched peers on measures of attendance, reading, mathematics, language, and emotional adjustment. These findings are consistent with other research from the last few decades.
Schools tend to see retaining a child as purely an academic decision. Yet retention needs to be considered a socio-emotional decision that has negative psychological consequences. Our experience has been that often the second thing students tell us after their name is that they have been retained. One study found that when sixth-grade students were asked to rate the most stressful life event, they rated being retained as equivalent to losing a parent or going blind. Another report found that youth placed in juvenile detention facilities rated being retained as more emotionally troubling than being incarcerated.
These findings provide strong evidence that the emotional toll of grade retention should be taken into account when developing policies for low-performing students. It is imperative to provide effective interventions that reduce the need to retain so many children and, if a child is retained, it is important to provide them mental health services to deal with the myriad of emotional issues that arise.
A Powerful Antidote
We believe that the most powerful antidote to grade retention is universal preschool. Quality preschool programs have been identified as one of the most effective, empirically based prevention strategies for reducing retention. They have been shown to improve prereading, prewriting and premathematics skills. Kindergarten-age children show large discrepancies in readiness skills that are seen mainly along socio-economic lines. Many start school without the pre-academic skills necessary to succeed. In order to level the playing field and help ensure that youngsters—especially those from low-income backgrounds—have the prerequisite skills to be successful in kindergarten, high quality preschool programs are necessary.
Other alternatives to retention that have research support include increasing parental involvement, high quality teacher preservice and in-service training, systematic screening and assessment, evidence-based reading and math programs and strategies, looping and multi-age classrooms, peer and one-to-one tutoring, summer school and extended school days, among others. If administrators have more information about effective alternatives, they will be better able to advocate for quality interventions.
It has been estimated that more than three million children each year fail a grade and that this extra year of schooling costs approximately $8,400 for each child. It can be reasonably argued that retaining so many students each year is more our failure than theirs. Yet it is our children who are paying the price.
Scott Poland is a contributing writer for District Administration and a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Philip J. Lazarus, who contributed to this article, conducts workshops on effective alternatives to retention.