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Third Grade Retention: What Harm Could it Do?

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In a comment on my recent post posing Critical Questions about the Common Core, one reader wrote: "I don't see any harm in requiring all students to be able to recite their multiplication tables from memory up to 12 X 12 by the end of third grade or they don't go to fourth grade."

In some ways this represents the epitome of standardization. Determine a standard that all students must meet, and make it into a "high bar" that they all must clear before they move on. This reader has suggested the times tables be used as that bar. Florida made reading proficiency the key criterion, and has held back third graders who did not meet the benchmark for the past decade. There is some research that suggests there have been gains as a result, leading other states to consider the policy.

If we begin using BOTH times tables AND reading proficiency as benchmarks that could result in retention, we will increase the number of students retained even more.

But big questions remain, especially about the long-term effects of retention. This is an area where there has been a great deal of research, stretching back decades. Larry Ferlazzo has gathered an array of articles on the subject.

This research review gives the big picture:

Systematic reviews and meta-analyses examining research over the past century (studies between 1911-1999) conclude that the cumulative evidence does not support the use of grade retention as an intervention for academic achievement or soci0o-emotional adjustment (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001). Recent comparisons of academic achievement (i.e., reading, math, and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (i.e., emotional adjustment, peer competence, problem behaviors, attendance and self-esteem) between retained and matched comparison students, reported in 19 studies published during the1990s, yielded negative effects of grade retention across all areas of achievement and socio-emotional adjustment *Jimerson, 2001).
Research also fails to find significant differences between groups of students retained early (kindergarten through 3rd grade) or later (4th through 8th grades). What is most important is that, across studies, retention at any grade level is associated with later high school dropout, as well as other deleterious long-term effects.
Typically, the test scores of students who are retained in the primary grades may increase for a couple of years and then decline below those of their equally low-achieving but socially promoted peers. The temporary benefits of retention are deceptive, as teachers do not usually follow student progress beyond a few years.

The National Association of School Psychologists prepared this concise report, which says in part,

Surveys of children's ratings of twenty stressful life events in the 1980s showed that, by the time they were in 6th grade, children feared retention most after the loss of a parent and going blind. When this study was replicated in 2001, 6th grade stu- dents rated grade retention as the single most stressful life event, higher than the loss of a parent or going blind (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2002). This finding is likely influenced by the pressures imposed by standards-based testing programs that often rely on test scores to determine promotion and graduation.
Analysis of multiple studies of retention indicate that retained students experience lower self esteem and lower rates of school attendance, relative to promoted peers (Jimerson, 2001). Both of these factors are further predictive of dropping out of school. Indirectly, low self-esteem and poor school attendance influence adult outcomes. Students who ultimately drop out of school without a diploma face considerable difficulty finding and maintaining employment for self-sufficiency and experience higher rates of mental health problems, chemical abuse and criminal activities than do high school graduates.

I think we should be very concerned about the psychological effects of policies such as these, because the scars that are inflicted on 8 year olds may affect them for the rest of their lives. And these effects may not be visible in their test scores. They may take years to show up.

This is not to say that students who have not learned to read should simply be bumped along the path towards graduation. There should be interventions to address the issues we discover. My own sons were struggling readers in the second grade. The older one was passed along, and did not really learn to read until we took him to a private reading specialist. The younger one was identified by the school, and placed in the Reading Recovery program. He worked closely with an excellent reading specialist, Rupert Gomez, and after a few months was reading at grade level. But I think he would have not been well-served by retention, for all the reasons suggested above.

What do you think? How have you seen students affected by retention? Does it provide lasting benefits? Or does it do more harm than good?

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