Retention Revisited: Can Staying Back Move Students Forward?

Retention Revisited: Can Staying Back Move Students Forward?

In a new study, Early Grade Retention and Student Success: Evidence from Los Angeles, released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), researchers reassessed the ability of retention to help failing students reach proficiency in Math and English.

Retention, which is a tactic that involves requiring students to repeat entire grade levels, has been criticized in the past as it has been regarded as ineffective in the long-term and emotionally distressing for students and parents.

As the U.S. education system continues to look for answers for failing students, this study aims to reopen the case for retention as a viable option. Analysts focused on early grade retention in LAUSD, California's largest school district, and found that many students retained by the 2nd grade saw improvements.

The study reports that 41 percent of retained students reached full proficiency in math and 18 percent in English Language Arts (ELA). These figures are a giant leap from the proficiency levels of these students prior to repeating a year: 6 percent in math, and only 1 percent in ELA.

The study also highlighted the risk factors, or the students most likely to be retained. The most significant indicator is age, as students who enter kindergarten early are increasingly more likely to be held back before the sixth grade. Another factor is sex. Boys are retained far more often than girls are. Low-income students and African American and Latino students were more likely to be retained.

There are many critics of retention, who continue to advocate for other solutions for students who are not meeting standards. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) cites concerns over the increases in behavior problems associated with retained students and, though they concede that there may be some initial gains that occur, "the consistent trend across many research studies is that achievement gains decline within 2-3 years of retention."

A study done by the Institute of Child Development and published in the Journal of School Psychology in 1997 also found retention to be ineffective.

"The retained group showed a temporary advantage in math achievement, but this disappeared as both groups faced new material. Moreover, the retained group exhibited significantly lower emotional health in the sixth grade. It is concluded that elementary grade retention was an ineffective intervention for both achievement and adjustment."

Another problem with retention is the cost associated with students repeating a year of education. The Center for Development and Learning, a nonprofit organization that does research on strategies for success in education, estimates that retention costs $13 billion a year.

As lawmakers and educators continue to search for solutions, retention is a strategy that merits more study. Though it remains a contentious issue, the authors of the study are providing insights into an option still utilized by schools across the nation.

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