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Study: Third-Grade Retention Has Positive Effects for Student Outcomes

Holding students back a year may have its benefits, according to a recent study published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).Dr. NaYoung HwangDr. NaYoung Hwang

Grade retention, the practice of having students repeat a grade if they do not pass certain proficiency thresholds, has been argued to help children develop their reading and literacy skills in early grades, preparing them for educational pursuits in the future.

"Literacy is really important. And right now, it's receiving a lot of attention from policymakers nationwide,” said Dr. Nicholas Hartlep, the Robert Charles Billings Chair in Education at Berea College and a former elementary school teacher. He praised the timeliness of the study.

The presence of opposing views on this controversial practice is partially what motivated this research, said study co-author Dr. NaYoung Hwang, an assistant professor of education at the University of New Hampshire. Opponents of the practice have argued that grade retention is punitive and can harm students socially and emotionally, Hwang said.

“Grade retention is a potent but highly disruptive education intervention,” the study noted. “Supporters of grade retention policies argue they provide students with the opportunity to master skills that are essential for learning in subsequent years, while opponents question the value of the extra time and emphasize the potential for negative social impacts.”

As of 2019, 18 U.S. states had mandatory retention laws for students taking state assessments, with the prominence of such policies increasing in the nation.

The study, “Helping or Hurting: The Effects of Retention in the Third Grade on Student Outcomes,” examined this practice’s effects, looking at how the state of Indiana’s test-based retention policy – based on third-grade reading tests – impacted student success, disciplinary outcomes, and attendance up to five years down the line.

According to the study, Indiana’s grade retention policy was in effect from the 2011-2012 through 2016-2017 school years. It used the Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determination (IREAD-3) test to gauge student reading proficiency before the fourth grade.

Examining school year data from 2011-2017, researchers followed the outcomes of five cohorts of third-grade students and conducted same-grade comparisons – from fourth to seventh grade – between students retained and those promoted to the next grade level. Student academic outcomes were measured by results on statewide end-of-year mathematics and ELA assessments, Hwang said.

The researchers found that the policy had substantial “positive short- and medium-term effects on same-grade student achievement in math and English Language Arts (ELA),” lasting up to five years after initial retention.

“Grade retentionat least in the early gradesis an effective intervention for students who are struggling to keep up with the material in school,” study co-author Dr. Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at University of Missouri, wrote in an email to Diverse. “Our findings show that retained students have much higher achievement after the retained year than they would have had if they were not retained.”

Additionally, the study found that there was no evidence that grade retention affected student disciplinary or attendance outcomes.

“The individual point estimates for this portion of our analysis are imprecise and have wide error bands,” according to the study findings. “While this prevents strong inference, our holistic interpretation is that the results give no indication, statistically or suggestively, of retention effects on these outcomes, which are associated with a host of other negative student outcomes.”

However, the study does have its limitations, Hwang said. For one, the non-academic outcomes that the study measured – disciplinary and attendance – do not account for the whole range of relevant factors, Hwang said.

“Suspensions, expulsions, and attendance are only part of the non-academic outcomes,” she said. “We are not able to include self-esteem, peer relationships, teacher expectations, and parental expectations. All of these things are very important."

The study also only pertains to the third grade, not grade retention for adolescents in the sixth or eight grade, Hwang stressed.

"There are some rigorous studies that actually indicate that 6th-grade and 8th-grade retention can have such a negative impact on students' outcomes, like high schools and even the criminal justice system," Hwang said.

Third, the study’s observations go up to five years but no further, so whether grade retention affects these students as they approach high school or college is unclear.

Experts said that more study is needed before educators and lawmakers implement policies that alter the course of students’ lives permanently.

"When you do hold a child back, that's a big impact on the kid's life,” Hartlep said. “And you can't go back. ... You can't un-ring a bell, so to speak."

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