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Early Retention Benefits Can Be Fleeting, Study Finds

In the early years of elementary school, teachers often refer to retention benignly as the "gift of time" for students who seem to lag behind their peers in terms of maturity. The reasoning is that it gives students an extra year to catch up with their peers.

Yet most, but not all, studies on grade retention suggest that in the long run, the practice may not work out so well for the students. Most disheartening of all, some studies show, in fact, that students who repeat a grade in school are more likely than their nonretained counterparts to drop out later on.

So what accounts for the disconnect between practice and research? A study in the current issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology sheds some light on what might be happening to grade repeaters
over time. It suggests that what teachers see happening to retained students in the early years may be different from students' experiences over time.

For four years, researchers from the University of Kansas, Texas A&M University, and Arizona State University tracked 124 children who were retained in 1st grade and 251 similarly low-performing 1st graders who were promoted. The good news is that in both the short- and long-term, the retained children were rated to be more engaged in their new classes and less hyperactive by their teachers, and their classmates also rated them to be less sad and withdrawn.

But other benefits were more fleeting. Immediately after they were retained, for instance, the grade repeaters got a boost in popularity with their younger classmates and they themselves reported a greater sense of belonging in school. But these effects decreased rapidly over the next three years. Part of what might be happening, the study says, is that the potentially stigmatizing effects of being overage for grade don't show up until students get older.

"Despite benefits through fourth grade," the authors write, "retention may create vulnerabilities that don't appear until the middle grades."

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