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Latest Study on Retention – No New Information

New study consistent with prior research on retention.

A new study, from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Early Grade Retention and Student Success: Evidence from Los Angeles, has some public officials wondering if it is time to revisit the practice of retention.

It shouldn’t.

Retention is the name given to the practice of repeating an entire grade level. According to the study, having students repeat a year in the early grades helped numerous failing students reach proficiency in math and English.

The study reports that 41 percent of those retained reached full proficiency in math and 18 percent in English Language Arts (ELA). These percentages represented significant increases over the recorded proficiency levels of these students prior to repeating their year: 6 percent in math, and only 1 percent in ELA. Ultimately, the researchers insist that blanket school district policies prohibiting retention are misguided and that the practice might be more cost-effective in certain instances than ongoing interventions.

While this may seem to be news and ultimately positive support for the practice, the fact is that this latest study is consistent with prior findings. Repeating material has always been a method for helping students increase their proficiency.

The issue is that retention does not fix a fundamental issue – some students are much slower learners than others. Give these slower learners more time and they will demonstrate positive gains over time.

But unfortunately the issue of pacing remains an issue for these learners. Students who attend summer school or repeat a grade will demonstrate greater levels of proficiency entering the new school year. And when asked to perform the tasks that they have been practicing will generally match the performances of their peers.

But the discrepancies soon begin anew when the teacher begins covering new material. Unless the retained students are given additional time, they soon begin to lag behind their peers, once again unable to match the pace of their on-grade classmates. Not too surprisingly, at year’s end the slower learners demonstrate lower levels of proficiency than their peers.

Therefore, the practice of retention has little in the way of lasting educational benefits for the students being held back. One or even a second additional year does not “fix” these students, especially if the teacher continues to utilize similar instructional techniques.

Furthermore, the negative impacts of retention on the social development and self-esteem of youngsters is well-documented. Retained students have higher dropout rates, increased behavior problems and greater absenteeism.

According to educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, the social issues are easily understood. Ultimately, most retained students begin to get discouraged with school and over time, give up on themselves as learners.

Sadly, in the standards era, retention is once again being used by school districts. In some cases liberally. And the latest study that offers some short term gains will likely allow those already implementing the practice to continue to use it.

But of course, retention, in and of itself, is simply not the answer. Instead, schools need to find ongoing answers for dealing with the slow learner.

In all fairness, additional ongoing interventions that seek to help slow learners remain with their grade peers often prove more costly monetarily than simply retaining individual students. But given the overall negative impact of retention long-term, investing in rigorous, ongoing intervention is the right way to ensure children make appropriate progress, socially as well as academically.


1 Joseph Thibault { 03.31.11 at 3:18 pm }

After reading pieces like this I always wonder why we still are using a grade/tier based approach to learning rather than a spectrum/continuum-based approach. It makes sense to me that student would be better suited to move up a learning “continuum” at their own pace rather than to try to fit students into 12 month “segments” of educational content. I do understand that the current infrastructure doesn’t support it but I have to think that there’s something to learn from a Montessori-type approach (insofar as letting students progress at their own speeds).

2 AS_4_569 { 04.01.11 at 1:08 am }

It has been said many times, no two students learn the same, and for that matter, at the same pace. Students are continuously being punished for their inability to keep up in school, as well as those students who keep up too well, in the form of ADD and ADHD students. Unfortunately, today’s society believes in the “one-size fits all” approach, and expects the student to fit the “all”. The approach minimizes student individual growth and prioritizes conformity of student behavior and learning. It falls to the teacher’s shoulders to them take up the slack and give those students more attention to try to keep them up with the class, and in those other cases, challenged enough not to cause trouble. It is a industrial production line attempt at creating better worker bees.

3 Joel { 05.11.11 at 7:03 pm }

I find these comments distressing. The one size fits all is reasonable for the vast majority of students. But the commenters would change the whole system to deal with a few outliners.
The fact is most children left back benefit by the experience.
So lets deal with the extreme outliners and leave the system alone.
As to “falling on the teacher’s shoulders”, what do we pay teachers to do?

4 Johny { 04.02.15 at 2:27 pm }

I couldn’t agree more with Joseph and Joel. The education system should be reviewed completely. This 12 -month segments of studying is not consistent with the reality of how students learn.

5 michelle { 05.05.15 at 11:47 am }

So let me ask, as an educator and a parent, what do we do with the students that are absent 57+ days and the students that can do the work but don’t, that begin the year by saying to the teacher, “I don’t have to do the work because no one gets left back, I never have to do anything”.

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