Is Retaining Students in Early Grades Self-Defeating?

Martin R. West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has authored a new study focusing on the pros and cons of state policies that require retention of third-grade students who do not test sufficiently proficient in reading. Such a policy has been in place in Florida since 2003 and that policy has been used as the basis for similar efforts in other states, including Ohio which this year passed and signed into law Senate Bill 316. This law will require third graders to read at a state minimum standard to advance to fourth grade.

These policies rest upon a number of studies that show that proficient reading is the bedrock of all other learning going forward, and that a lack of reading proficiency at this critical stage of learning development leads to lower outcomes over the long-haul (e.g., higher intervention needs and increased dropout rates). West adds to this literature by examining the educational path of Florida students who were retained in third grade in 2003 over the ensuing six years to determine what impact the retention had on those students’ academic advancement.

West finds a significant short-term achievement boost in reading in the first two years in the group of retained third-grade students versus similar-achieving third-grade students who were promoted to fourth grade. There was also a less-significant but still-measurable boost in math achievement as well.

In the longer term, retention in 2003 for reading remediation reduced the likelihood that these students would be retained in later grades: students who were retained in 2003 were 11 percentage points less likely to be retained in the following year and 4 percentage points less likely to be retained in each of the following three years.

On the downside, West acknowledges the greater costs of retaining a larger-than-average number of students for a full school year as well as a steady diminishing of the early achievement boost as the students progress into upper grades.

But these downsides are seen to pale in comparison to the alternative of social promotion of students who would otherwise be retained under policies such as those in Florida and in Ohio’s SB 316. West concludes that it is likely only a matter of time before students who would meet criteria to be retained in third grade would – if not retained at that time - be eventually retained in higher grades anyway, when remediation may be far less successful and far more socially-stigmatizing. High reading proficiency at the critical third grade level appears to have far reaching implications, whether achieved or not achieved and whether remediated or not.

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