Should we retain students at the end of third grade who have not met expected learning goals? Instead of "socially promoting" these students, should we offer them what some advocates refer to as "the gift of time."
On the surface this seems to make sense. If students did not learn well enough during their first four years in school, another year might give them the chance they need to do better. And if they do better after that additional year, they'll have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in school from that point on.
The problem is that nearly all the research on retention shows it doesn't work that way. From studies dating back to the early 1980s, one point is clear: Retention is not effective in producing significant gains in student achievement or in having lasting benefits for struggling students. In fact, retention does more harm than good.
Well-designed studies comparing retained and promoted students of like ability consistently show the promoted students outperform the retained students the next year. Not only do retained students do less well academically, they score lower on measures of personal and psychological adjustment, are less confident in their ability to learn, and display more discipline problems.
Being retained is also strongly associated with dropping out of school. children retained one year are five times more likely to drop out of school than those who have never been retained. Children retained two or more years have nearly a 100 percent probability of becoming dropouts compared with similar low performers who are promoted.
In Kentucky schools, more children are retained in kindergarten or first grade than in third grade. This stems from the belief that if a child must be retained, it's best to do it early. There is a considerable amount of research which shows, however, that even in instances when retained students improved their achievement test scores the year they were retained, those gains diminish within a year. Children who spend the extra year in kindergarten or first grade are just as likely as their promoted counterparts to be at the bottom of their third-grade class.
In addition, retaining students is very costly. It requires investing another year in a child's K-12 educational experience. In Fayette County, that means spending about an additional $10,000 per retained student.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to retention other than "social promotion" that are much more effective. For the same amount of money, schools could place struggling students in high quality summer-school programs for three consecutive summers. Such programs would offer half-days classes for six weeks during summer months so students would still have ample time for other activities. Class sizes would be kept to no more than 10 students and would offer individualized programs designed to focus on each student's specific learning needs.
Summer-school programs like this not only prevent the academic summer loss experienced by many poor students, they keep students with their age-peers in school and have been shown to yield benefits far greater than any retention program.
In these difficult financial times, schools cannot afford to spend their limited resources on programs or policies that research has consistently shown to be ineffective and harmful. Instead, they must focus attention on practices with a proven record of success in helping students succeed in school. Although there are many educational programs and policies that have such a record, retaining students does not rank among them.