Failing Grades for Retention

Prevailing educational research studies indicate holding back students carries negative effects by GARY NATRIELLO

Several years ago while on a field trip to a historic site with my son’s 3rd-grade class, I was struck by one of his classmates who seemed more knowledgeable and articulate in describing the site and answering the questions posed by the guide than any other student in the class.

I was so impressed that after returning home from the trip I asked my son about this boy and if he was as well prepared in other areas of the curriculum. I was more than a bit surprised when my son replied, "Oh, sure he knows about the stuff from the trip. He was in the same grade and took the same trip last year!"

We all have experiences that inform our thinking about retaining students in grade. As students we may have watched classmates left behind as we moved up or we may have received new classmates left behind from the class ahead of us or we may have even been left behind ourselves. As teachers we may have recommended that certain students repeat a grade or wished that some students in our classes had been retained for another year in the previous grade. As administrators we may have had the daunting task of discussing a grade-retention decision with parents.

In an era when higher standards are the watchword, where limited resources are the reality and where every graduate who cannot read seems like another nail in the coffin of public schooling, the pressure to hold poorly performing students in a grade is considerable. These external pressures often drive district policies regarding retention, policies that seek to achieve multiple purposes.

A Changing Picture
Amid all of the opinions, experiences and pressures that affect district policies and personal positions on the question of retaining students in grade, we have a growing body of educational research that seeks to determine if grade retention is beneficial for those retained. This research has developed over the past quarter century as researchers have focused on this practical issue.

The assessment of retention practices by researchers has changed over this time. In the 1970s the prevailing position of the research community was that no compelling evidence showed that retaining poorly performing students in a grade was more beneficial than promoting them to the next grade. Researchers cautioned that those educators who were retaining students with performance or adjustment problems were doing so without solid evidence that the practice would have the intended positive effects on students.

At the same time, researchers were quick to add they could not demonstrate that promotion was better than retention. Rather, the accumulated research evidence at the time was so poor that valid conclusions could not be drawn regarding the relative benefits of promotion versus retention.

By the 1980s the body of research evidence had evolved such that researchers became more definitive in their advice to educators. Syntheses of the growing body of empirical work on retention concluded that retaining students in a grade had more negative effects on student achievement, personal adjustment, self-concept and attitudes toward school than promoting students on to the next grade level. In short, researchers concluded that the weight of empirical evidence available at the time argued against retention.

By the close of the 1980s amid growing public support for rigorous grade-level standards and opposition to the social promotion of poorly performing students, those who had conducted research on retention maintained that the demonstrated negative impact of not promoting students placed the burden of proof on proponents of retention to show some compelling reason why a particular retention policy should be adopted when retention overall had proven so ineffective.

Most studies reported in the 1990s have confirmed the prevailing opinion of educational researchers that retention has negative effects on students retained, with some added details. Some researchers have found different patterns of effects for different outcomes, for example, finding negative effects on cognitive achievement and positive effects on students’ perceived school competence, a pattern consistent with the example of my son’s classmate noted at the outset.

Other researchers have noted that positive results more often were found for retention when it was joined with a planned program of remediation. Still others, in contrast to the prevailing consensus, have reported positive effects for students retained after the 1st grade in urban schools, claiming that although retention did not bring such students up to the level of performance of promoted students, it did allow them to progress at a faster rate than before they were retained and it stabilized or reduced the performance gap between retained and promoted youngsters.

None of these benefits were found for students retained in 1st grade, students who had the poorest performance of all retained youngsters. Even in the case of students retained in later grades, alternative interpretations of the data from urban schools suggest that retention confers no lasting benefit to the students retained.

Shortcomings of Research
The research on retention, while not unequivocal, presents a reasonably consistent caution about the limited utility of retention as a strategy to advance student learning. In light of this research, the question that arises is why school districts nationwide, encouraged by the standards movement at the state and national levels, continue policies of retaining poorly performing students in a grade for a second year.

Indeed, the irony is that retaining students has become a more popular practice during the very time period that research has revealed its negative effects on those retained. The answer to this question lies both in the limitations of the current research on retention for dealing with the issues that confront school administrators and in the constraints of current school district practices.

The research on retention has focused on establishing the effects of retention and promotion on poorly performing students. It has dealt with a host of complexities involved in comparing the subsequent progress in academic and other domains for groups of students who may differ on initial performance and who differ by age following retention. However, the research on retention has not addressed many of the issues that confront school administrators.

In establishing district and school policies regarding retention, administrators must consider community attitudes regarding the promotion of low-skilled students to higher grades. They must be mindful of public reactions to graduates who lack basic skills as well as the reactions of other students (and their parents) who find themselves in classes with poorly prepared students who have been promoted.

Moreover, when making individual decisions regarding promotion and retention, administrators must consider the potential impact on the classes that poorly performing students are promoted into and the capacities of teachers to meet their needs as well as the attitudes of teachers receiving such students. They must balance these against the capacities of the teachers in the classrooms at the grade level at which students might be retained to offer instruction more effective than the instruction experienced the first time the student was in the grade.

As thorough and systematic as the research on retention has been in considering the effects on the students retained or promoted, it has not considered the broader effects of retention policies on the communities, schools and classrooms that fall within the purview of school administrators.

Limited Alternatives
When researchers compare the body of research on retention showing negative effects to administrative practices that increasingly seem to favor retention and wonder why administrators ignore research, it is because they fail to understand the operational constraints that drive administrative actions. Even within the limited context of seeking to chart the best course for an individual student, retention is often the most readily available, if the most expensive, option for remediation.

Ideally, one might intervene to assist poorly performing students before a decision to retain them in grade even arises. But schools and districts often have limited options for such intervention because assessments of student performance come too late or are too limited in scope, because special intervention efforts require special staffing and funding arrangements or because existing remediation programs prove ineffective. In short, administrators are often put in a position where they have to consider retention because existing arrangements to deal with student learning problems are neither flexible nor responsive enough to address the problems effectively short of retention.

Moreover, retention is not subjected to the same review and control procedures as other options. Programs such as after-school tutoring and summer school may be more effective in promoting student progress without the accompanying long-term effects of increasing the likelihood of dropping out for students too old for their grade associated with retention.

However, administrators seeking to secure funding to establish alternatives to retention face considerable resistance, while the decision to add a full year of additional expenditures for a retained student is made without much notice of the budgetary implications at the school, district or state level.

The consensus of the research community on retention has been based on a rather limited view of the issues involved in decisions about retention and promotion. The opposing perspective, seen in the recent bandwagon actions of policymakers and practitioners, stems from an equally limited view of the options available to address student learning problems. Only when both communities adopt broader views of the issues and possibilities for dealing with student learning in the context of real classrooms, schools and districts are we likely to see a consensus that reflects the best thinking of both communities.

Gary Natriello is professor of sociology and education, Teachers College, Columbia University, Box 85, New York, N.Y. 10027. E-mail: gjn6@columbia.edu