In 1999, educational researcher Robert Hauser said of the New York City school district: "In its plan to end social promotion the administration appears to have [included] ... an enforcement provision -- flunking kids by the carload lot -- about which the great mass of evidence is strongly negative. And this policy will hurt poor and minority children most of all."

Studies clearly show that early retention - 3rd grade and earlier - is harmful. Students retained in first grade do worse than expected, both academically and emotionally. There is also substantial evidence that retention in kindergarten is equally harmful. Being removed from a group of peers with whom a student has just gotten comfortable seems to compound the difficulty of adjusting to school and to set the child back rather than help. Among other reasons, students at a young age do not "choose" to be poor learners.

For other grades, the research is mixed. A few well-designed studies have found that retained students do better academically and feel better about themselves and about school during the first one to three years after retention. Consistent with the Chicago findings reported here, the biggest advantage was found in a district that identified students early, attempted to avoid retention through re-mediation, and gave special assistance to retained students. Even there, as in other studies, the advantage for retained students declined each year and washed out altogether after three years. Other studies have found that retention either offers no advantage or actually harms students. Taken together, the studies find that simple retention -- retention without efforts at prevention and special assistance for those retained -- is especially risky.

At least 55 studies show that when flunked students are compared to socially promoted students, flunked students perform worse and drop out of school at higher rates; when other factors are controlled for, the dropout rate was 70 percent more for those held back one grade. For those held back two or more grades, the dropout rate is nearly 100%. Grade retention is a statistically better predictor of dropping out, drug use, and criminal behavior than social-economic status.

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