Countries in which schools frequently hold back or kick out students with low academic performance tend to have weaker, more expensive, and more socially inequitable education systems overall according to a new analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In comparing the results of the Program for International Student Assessment in 65 member and partner countries, OECD researchers found that differences among countries' grade-retention trends could explain as much as 15 percent of the difference among their average scores on the 2009 PISA.
While fewer than 3 percent of students in 13 countries—including Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom—reported ever repeating a grade, more than 25 percent of students repeated at least once in France, Spain, Brazil, and a dozen others studied. The United States reported more than one in 10 students repeating a grade, higher than the OECD average, while the top-performing countries, Finland and Korea, do not allow grade retention.
Researchers also found lower PISA scores for countries in which more schools reported they would transfer a student out of the school for low grades, special needs, or behavior problems. Ten of the countries studied reported about two of every five students attended a school "very likely" to transfer based on academics, while another 10 reported fewer than 3 percent of students attend schools that transfer for those reasons.
The OECD found that both high rates of grade retention and transfer happened in countries in which a child's socioeconomic status was more likely to predict that child's academic performance.
"This suggests that transferring students tends to be associated with socioeconomic segregation in school systems, where students from advantaged backgrounds end up in better-performing schools while students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up in poorer performing schools," the report noted.
The OECD analysis comes as a number of states are debating whether and when to hold back a student who has not met grade-level proficiency standards. Chicago and North Carolina recently ended bans on social promotion, while Arizona and Florida have required schools to retain students who cannot meet 3rd grade reading benchmarks.
Retaining students who are falling behind can give them more time to meet standards, but students who are overage for their grade have been shown to be at higher risk of later dropping out of school.
The OECD researchers suggested that while some countries may encourage retaining or transferring students in an attempt to give them more time or different resources, these practices "do not succeed in producing superior results and, in some cases, reinforce socioeconomic inequities" by giving teachers fewer incentives to continue to work with struggling students.