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Does Student Retention Work?

Does Student Retention Work?

Dr. Rebecca Branstetter

Every March, I get a slew of new referrals for testing students for learning disabilities, ADHD, and other disabilities, as the sheer panic of “What is going to happen to this student in X+1 grade???” (Where X is the child’s current grade, plus one. See? Algebra is useful after all.) I hear parents and teachers wonder out loud how the kid who is not meeting grade standards is going to make it next year. I hear murmurs in the teacher’s lounge about retention. And I cringe.

I don’t mind the referrals for testing.* As a parent or teacher, I would want to know if the student had a learning disability before I made a big decision about retention or promotion. No, I don’t cringe because of the 8 hojillion referrals I will be getting. I cringe because Over 100 years of research does not support retention as an effective intervention for kids who are not learning, missed a lot of school, or are socially immature. That’s right, I said it, and I italicized it too. The research does not support retention.

Before you write me with your anecdotal evidence saying it worked for so-and-so, I have to prefend (pre-defend? New word?) my position on the matter. Ironically, I will also cite my own anecdotal evidence. I’m above the law. But I will also cite the National Association of School Psychologist’s position statement on the research as my source as well.**

1) Social promotion without any other intervention is not effective either. I never subscribe to the “Let’s do the same thing that didn’t work twice!” model. The research shows that “promotion plus” (i.e. Combining grade promotion and effective evidence-based interventions) is more likely than retention to benefit children with low achievement or behavior problems.

2) Initial academic improvements may occur during the year the student is retained. There is celebration and validation of the retention. We made the right decision! However, many research studies show that achievement gains decline within 2-3 years of retention. This means that kids who are retained do not end up doing better than similar children who were not retained, but were experiencing similar academic problems.

3) In adolescence, retained students are more likely to experience behavioral and self-esteem problems, and are 5-10 times more likely to drop out of school. I get to see the long-term effects of retention, and it is not pretty. Retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school drop out. Plus, anecdotally, I am working with a student who is in 8th grade and is ALMOST 16 YEARS OLD. He was retained twice and now can almost drive himself to middle school. Seriously. It’s not right. He is not doing well.

4) A study of 6th graders’ perceptions indicated that they consider retention as one of the most stressful life events. I have consoled many a crying student on the first day of school when they are told they are still in the same grade as last year. It’s devastating.

5) Retention may help students who have missed many days of school, but only if their attendance improves and if the child will not be considerably older than the other students.

The take home message is: At this time, however, there are no specific indicators that predict which children could benefit from retention. So yes, maybe a few kids here and there could benefit, but by and large, we don’t know which ones, and the research is pretty clear that overall, retention doesn’t work and it may be harmful in the long run.

Not convinced yet? Throw some counter research my way. I’ll read it. It might be in June, because I’m in the middle of a Testival (festival of testing) right now. But I will read it.

I should also note that I am equally adamant about not retaining students with IEPs (students with disabilities). Why? Because the whole reason they are behind grade level is because of their disability, and there is a 8 hojillion page plan on how to support them in the next grade. Special educators help the kid access whatever grade level curriculum they are doing in the general education environment anyway. If the student is making progress toward their IEP goals, then I don’t think they should be retained. Plus, did I mention one hundred years of research doesn’t support it? I think I did…

I’m a bit feisty tonight, as you may be able to tell. I just want parents and educators to have the research in their minds as they come to March Madness decisions. I get it. I am in the same meetings you are in, where you just can’t imagine how a kid is going to make it in X+1 grade. Especially for the students with really poor attendance. It’s really hard to come up with a promotion plus plan, I know. But that’s what our job as school psychologists is—to inform, educate, and roll up our sleeves to help figure out what to do for these struggling students.

*Okay, I mind a little bit, only because they all come at once. But I’ve finally just accepted the cyclical nature of these things.

**Grade Retention and Promotion: Information for Parents. By Shane Jimerson, Ph.D., Sarah M. Woehr, & Amber M. Kaufman, M.A. University of California, Santa Barbara. Available on the NASP Website

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