The Brookings Institution has released a policy brief that shows that holding kids back a grade earlier in their education career could lead to better academic outcomes and reduce the possibility that they might drop out in later grades. Specifically, preventing 3rd graders who are struggling with literacy from automatically advancing a grade and instead giving them an opportunity to repeat while also offering remediation results in higher exam scores in both reading and mathematics. Furthermore, having them repeat 3rd grade substantially reduces the chances that they’ll be held back later on.
The brief comes from the Brookings Center on Children and Families, and was presented at an event attended by policymakers, academics and practitioners. These findings could serve to especially benefit minority and low-income students by providing a viable solution to the problem of achievement gaps between them and their more advantaged peers.
In the brief “Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?,” Harvard professor Martin R. West reviews the research on social promotion and grade retention. Looking at high-quality, large-scale studies conducted in Florida, West notes that, as compared with similar students who were not retained, the retained children were 11 percentage points less likely to be retained one year after they were initially held back and roughly 4 percentage points less likely to be retained in each of the following three years. As a result, students retained in 3rd grade after five years are only 0.7 grade levels behind their peers who were immediately promoted to grade 4.
West doesn’t ignore the long-term impact of grade-retention, and writes that retentions are no different from other common academic interventions. Although improvements may be strongly apparent initially, eventually they decline into statistical noise. For example, someone held back in 3rd grade will be on level with his new peers by the grade 7. But those who are made to repeat perform on the whole better than those who were promoted with their class. Those who go on to graduate high school draw substantial benefits from the extra year of instruction.
“The keys to good policy to reduce the reading achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students are to have high-quality programs during the preschool and early elementary years featuring highly effective teachers, to provide intensive remedial instruction in reading for students who are not proficient readers by third grade, and to use retention judiciously for students who need additional compensatory instruction,” West said.