Study: Grade Retention on the Decline


A new study has shown that the practice of requiring a student to repeat a grade to further academic progress – grade retention — declined from 2005 to 2010.

The study, “Patterns and Trends in Grade Retention Rates in the United States, 1995–2010,” reviewed the practice of grade retention over the years 2005-2010 in grades 1 through 9.  Also considered in the study was how retention varied by grade, student socioeconomic status, race, gender, geography, parents’ educational attainment, family structure, community setting, as well as how long their family had been living in the United States.

The authors found that after reaching a peak in 2005 of 2.9%, retention rates overall fell to 1.5% in 2009-10 across all student groups.  The largest decreases were found among groups who had historically shown the highest retention rates, which includes boys and minority students.

Overall, 2.4% of students were found to have repeated a grade, including 6.2% of first graders.  The highest retention rates in that time were found to be among first and ninth graders.  This pattern was consistent across all student groups and all geographic areas.

Among all grades, retention rates were found to be highest among boys, blacks and Hispanics, in addition to students of poorly-educated parents, children who had single parents, urban children, immigrants, and those living in Southern and Northeastern states.

“Grade retention may have substantial positive or negative consequences for a student’s future academic achievement,” said John Robert Warren of the University of Minnesota, one of the study’s authors. “Given its cost for schools and its potential impact for students, practitioners and policymakers have had surprisingly little information about how often students are made to repeat grades.”

The authors did not spend time considering the reasons behind the decrease in retention rates, although they did say “they may have to do with changes in states’ accountability policies in conjunction with newly available information from states’ longitudinal student tracking systems.”  Not many states had student data systems in place before 2005.

“Optimistically, it also could be the result of earlier research that found only mixed evidence that retention leads to more learning, but consistent evidence that it leads to higher dropout rates,” said Warren. The authors downplayed the likelihood that national economic trends or No Child Left Behind were factors.

Data was used to find a nationwide rate for grade retention from the Current Population Survey (CPS), performed in a partnership between the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The CPS has collected information concerning school enrollment that could be used to decipher grade retention since 1995.  While some states do report grade retention rates, neither the National Center for Education Statistics or any other federal agency officially reports on the information within the US.

12 18, 2014
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