Flawed, ideological, non-peer-reviewed studies should not rebut decades of anti-retention research


Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s recent remarks about retaining 3rd graders confirm both the potential positives and the many negatives of in-grade retention in elementary school.

First, the potential positives: in-grade retention sometimes leads to short-term (1 to 2 years out) – and maybe even mid-term (3 to 5 years out) – academic gains. The peer-reviewed research shows that these test score gains occasionally occur when you force kids to repeat 3rd grade, partly because 4th grade test scores look better when low-achievers have been removed from the grade cohort and partly because retained students have had an extra year of schooling by the time they actually are tested in 4th grade. That said, the Greene & Winters study that Gov. Branstad mentioned in his guest essay comes from a research institute known to be quite ideological and has been cited as having serious methodological concerns. It thus should be viewed with skepticism.

Unfortunately, the peer-reviewed research also unequivocally shows that the longer-term effects of elementary in-grade retention are disastrous. A simple Google Scholar search brings all of the research to the fore. What it tells us is that 1) short-term academic gains due to retention disappear by the upper grades, 2) being retained significantly increases dropout rates (65% to 90% of overage children in grade 9 do not persist to graduation), and 3) retention greatly diminishes student self-concept as well as future life success as adults (e.g., lower postsecondary education attendance, pay per hour, and employment competence ratings). In other words, potential short-term gain equals a great deal of known long-term pain.

As Iowans, do we care more about brief test gains so that we look good compared to other states? Or do we care more about the long-term educational and life success of our children? Bumping up Iowa’s 4th grade scores for a short period of time so that we can feel better about our rankings compared to other states – at the expense of longer-term life success for our children – makes no sense whatsoever. To put it bluntly, what’s the point of having higher NAEP scores if our kids then later drop out of school? Do we want our graduation rates to look more like Florida’s (44th in the country)? It’s telling that the Governor and his education team continue to 1) ignore the long-term impacts of in-grade retention, instead repeatedly citing just a couple of proven-to-be-flawed studies that show short-term results, and 2) fail to produce an extensive body of peer-reviewed research that supports his retention proposal (because there isn’t any).

This is not an ideological issue (or at least it shouldn’t be). It’s a question of what the data show us, which are consistent and unilaterally negative impacts on students and adult beyond the potential first few years of test score gains. The Governor’s proposal to increase support and intervention for struggling readers in early grades is both admirable and desirable. But there’s absolutely no peer-reviewed research that supports the failure of 3rd graders and an incredible wealth of research against it. Iowa educators are asked to implement research-based best practices in their schools and classrooms. We should hold the Governor and the Department of Education to the same standards.

Say yes to intervention, but say no to retention.

Image credit: I thought we were supposed to get answers

31 Responses to “Flawed, ideological, non-peer-reviewed studies should not rebut decades of anti-retention research”

  1. Retention can delay intensive reading intervention: Johnny is retained in K, looks average in reading the second time around in k so doesn’t get intensive intervention, 1st grade looks low average in reading, part way thru 2nd grade any advantage of retention is washed away and he looks terrible in reading and gets intensive intervention. We have just last 2.5 years because the retention masked his true reading problems.

  2. I think it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation here. If we find that students who were retained in elementary school go on to have lower rates of success in life (however we wish to define that), it is certainly possible that this wasn’t caused by the fact that those students were retained. It could be — and logically would seem to be — the fact that those were the lowest-ability students in the first place!

    • This is the main and worst offense most of these studies make! It’s so absolutely idiotic, and prevalent, in statistical analysis it boggles the mind.

  3. Mark, that makes sense. You’d have to read those studies further (there are a LOT of them!) to see how they handled that issue. I think many of them do controlled studies where they match retained students with those of similar ability who were not retained.

  4. If they did handle that issue with similar-ability control groups as you described, then obviously the objection to retention should be taken very seriously. If anyone has read these studies deeply enough to chime in here with links or quotes to the pertinent data, I’d love to see it.

    • Dig around in Google Scholar. Let us know what you find!

      For example…




      • Scott,

        You wrote the article. You make the case that retaining kids is bad. Shouldn’t you do the digging around?

        • The data does seem to check out though.

          What strikes me as odd is the choice to do this so early. In high schools we definitely face the problem of it being EXTREMELY onerous to fail students who literally and figuratively destroy the classroom environment. I certainly don’t think the most troubled of these students are going to be helped a lot by repeating. I do think the second, third, fourth, fifth etc (you get the picture)are going to be helped directly by knowing there is a real and enforced standard. Our battle is more grade 8-10 where oversize-for-age is not so much of an issue. I think all classroom teachers are more than a little sick of being told by researchers than they must continue to let down 28 of their students to look to the best interest of 2.
          After all do the longitudinal studies of retained children factor in the class that went on without them?

  5. Graduation rate is irrelevant if you have failed to educate the child. Unless, of course, we really have set out sights on blissfully ignorant as the primary goal.

    • Hi Jeff, I confess that I struggle with this (as do others). On the one hand, I agree with you that we don’t want to churn out ‘blissfully ignorant’ adults. On the other hand, what we do with kids who struggle academically? The more often we retain them, the more the negative consequences accumulate. They drop out more often and earlier, they have even worse life consequences, etc. EVEN COMPARED TO if we ‘socially promote’ them. The answer seems to be promotion but with better interventions, not retention. It’s not a perfect solution by any means but it’s better than any alternative we’ve found so far…

      Given that decades of research clearly shows the significant and detrimental impacts of retention, what’s YOUR suggestion for what to do with academically-struggling children?

  6. I live in Florida. I have a 2nd grader who has recently been diagnosed with serious dyslexia and dysgraphia. He is also extremely talented in the math, spatial relationships and auditory memory. In some cases he tested in the 98th percentile here.

    If he fails the 3rd grade test in Florida we will be faced with the decision of whether to allow him to stay in the public school that our entire family loves and repeat 3rd grade thanks to our State’s requirement that students pass the 3rd grade test to advance to 4th grade OR send him to one of the very expensive private schools in the area.

    I urge people in your State to NOT do this to your children and their families. We are fortunate to be able to afford a tutor and to have the time to work intensively with our son at home. In the long run, I know he will be fine and the work ethic he is developing as a result of these disabilities is amazing. However, there are plenty of kids without these advantages (and without the means to leave the public schools) who will be scarred for life. As this blog post suggests, if the idea is so great why is Florida’s graduate rate so terrible?

  7. but aren’t there also flaws with passing every kid…in High School many kids feel they can do little or no work and they will just go on to the next course because that is what has happened for 8 years. They get into the habit that school is just about putting in your time, not about learning.

    • Yes, there are flaws with promoting children too, but promotion appears to be the lesser of the two evils compared to retention.

      • But what happens in high school when you have students who read at the 2nd grade level and students who read at 12+? This type of classroom situation benefits NO ONE.
        How about modifying the whole grade based system, and turn it into one of proficiency? Why make a student is is excelling at math, retake the whole 3rd grade year because they are not proficient at reading? What about elementary schools that have the day broken into sections (kind of like high school and middle school) and students go to certain teachers based on their ABILITY rather than their age?
        I know this opens up a whole new can of worms about changing the whole elementary experience, but isn’t that we are about? Definitely time for a paradigm change.

  8. Thanks, Scot. I studied longitudial research to advise my nephew (The teachers of his son wanted to retain him.) The longitudinal research compared retained vs. non-retained students with similar profiles. Conclusion: Retention should be BANNED! Intervene, intervene, intervene. Stand up for the kid.

  9. As a father of a iowa 3rd grader who is reading at almost the 5th grade level I can see how beneficial her reading capability is to her other courses and her learning capabilities.

    I believe if you can’t read you can’t learn (or it is much harder) so maybe a solution to consider is to provide funding to help those students who can’t read get the tutoring needed so they can catch up while moving them forward in their academic and workforce preparedness journey. Our family is lucky to have a two parent family but many families don’t so schools take on a larger roll in the education of the child.

    I commend the Governor and Director Glass for highlighting the importance of reading so let’s work together in a bi-partisan fashion to find a solution!

    • I think everyone concurs with the intervention/support side of the Governor’s proposal. There’s no reason that can’t move forward without the retention piece. Then all the objections to this misguided policy would disappear.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with this. Spend the money now and save it later in so many ways.

      If anyone can explain how you catch up by going slower I’ll accept the scientific and real-word validity of differentiation as it’s currently espoused in teacher training.

      What is so bad in making a failing student stay back and get additional help?!?!? How can that be seen as punishment!?!?

  10. It’s not a matter of to retain or not to retain. The issue is how do we help students who are struggling learners?

    I’d love to see us restructure schools around the Common Core in this manner. (I pick the Common Core because everyone is being forced to use it) Sequence the standards that must be learned before high school. High school math would begin with Algebra 1, science with Physical Science, History/Social Studies with Civics. Get rid of grade levels based on age. Simply progress students through the standards. Simplify the testing process so that state testing can take place anytime during the year. Provide interventions along the way.

    Once the student accomplishes all the pre-req elementary standards, he/she can begin taking high school credits that have pass/fail connotations before moving to next course. Sort of like pre-college except it also has vocat training courses as well.

    This is just one simplified suggestion.

    • Matt, that’s a suggestion that’s firmly in line with competency-based progression principles. Makes sense to me!

      With more policymakers making noise about competency-based education, will they also recognize its resultant impacts on existing age- and grade-oriented schooling structures or will they try and squeeze CBE into old systems (thus defeating much of its purpose and power)? I’m guessing the latter. For example, Governor Branstad’s recent education legislation proposal here in Iowa includes both CBE and retention. He doesn’t see the logical fallacy of that because he thinks of CBE as only being for the ‘smart’ kids.

    • I agree with this too. Making out like retain or don’t retain (monolithic one size fits all approach) can solve the problem of current schooling (another monolithic one size fits all approach) is silly.
      All solutions are constrained by funding though. However if we stopped trotting out ideological solutions and gave people something concrete I reckon the funding war would be easier to win.

  11. Retention is certainly worse than promotion but let’s not forget that we are creating an argument that ignores a major assumption – that the best way to organize people for learning is to batch them by age and move them through a system on a tight, unwavering cycle time (180 days, 7 hrs day, 2 hrs day reading instruction, etc).

    Perhaps the real answer is to get rid of the structures that force us into artificial choices like “retention” or “social promotion.” If we had a system based upon competency, self-paced, and tied to student passion, we would be solely focused on interventions and supports throughout the learning experience because kids of all ages would be at all sorts of different places.

    On another note, reading-to-learn happens over roughly a bell curve from ages 6 to 10. Making a decision for 8 year old’s about whether or not they are “behind” seems ridiculous. Poor outcomes for non-readers by age 8 are more a result of the industrial-age system we force kids into and the assumptions we adults hold about the validity of these systems.

    • Agreed. We need to make the most of computers to give solid feedback on set tasks so we can have students working independently while at school to then free up teacher time so they can teach by skill and interest instead of age – that’s the only way you could move in this direction without huge costs.
      Of course interest can’t be all – how does a child know what they will like forever and how can we trust them to overcome adversity if we leave everything up to choice?
      But we CAN move towards a less monolithic approach but we also HAVE to give up some of our sacred cows. Responsibility and freedom are entirely interlinked. Children are not hard-wired to handle responsibility, there needs to be some punitive element in schools and the move against it is pretty disastrous.

  12. Thank you Scott for fighting the good fight on this. Please continue. I plan to do that same. I hate to just repeat what everyone else, including yourself, has been saying here and elsewhere.

    I’d like to highlight that many of the studies you can find on 3rd grade retention also have found that there are potential serious negative effects on the social-emotional well being of students who are retained. I would hope that would matter to those setting these policies as well.

  13. Hi, I’m Jessica LaForce from Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class blog at the University of South Alabama. The idea that retention can later affect whether or not a student will graduate seems a little far-fetched. Although, the fact can be argued for some students, there are many other factors that can be put into consideration. For example, the students home life or the students will to learn. Now, I agree that student’s should not be held back to simply raise test score’s for your state. A student should be held back if he/she does not meet the requirements they should have. Here are link’s to my class blog and also my personal blog. Jessica LaForce’s EDM 310 Blog EDM 310 Class Blog I will be summarizing my visit’s to your blog in my blog on 2/13/2012.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jessica. I’ll note again that there’s a bevy of research that proves that the connection is not so far-fetched after all. In fact, it’s quite solid. I encourage you to click on the Google Scholar link in the post and see for yourself.

  14. My above link did not work for my personal blog HERE it is again.

  15. I will check it out. Thanks for the comment back. This is a really great topic in my opinion!

  16. I will make an assumption: there are tall people and there are short people by genetic inheritance; there are also abstract thinkers and there are hands-on do-ers also by genetic inheritance. Why do we continue to hold on to one-education-fits-all curricular standards? I do not mean to group the ‘Sparrows’ and the ‘Robins’ but should my duck really learn to fly like an eagle? There should not be any stigma attached to who we are. Let’s show a little respect for individual worth by focussing on self-actualization. First the dignity that comes with developing natural talents then the acquisition of basic skills. Retention? Social promotion? We are not model T Fords. The world is better for having all the colours.

    • There are also people who are not very good at anything and many that are exceptionally good at many things. That’s why I think your ideology is particularly dangerous in schools. If being bad at one thing means you then must be good at something else everything should be pretty easy right, you just need to find what it is? Total nonsense. Somethings are much more valued in modern society. Customer service (empathy, patience, insight) are always valuable. Critical thinking and abstract thinking can be useful in a wide variety of ways. THAT is why we insist on teaching them in schools as major subjects. This whole T Model Ford argument put forward by gurus like Ken Robinson is pure bunk. We have systematic, efficient and regular ways of doing things precisely because they generally work. Yes it reached a certain level at a certain point in history but it is not cutting social commentary or deep thinking to point it out, it’s platitude to push a postmodern agenda.

      We have this idiotic program in Australia where students who can do neither of the above are shunted off to trade schools in years 9 and 10 because, hey, if student A can’t read and write and constantly creates disruption and stress for themselves and those around them they must be fucking great at wiring houses or consulting with people about how they want their bathrooms renovated. Of course they aren’t and they are thrown out of those places with startling regularity.

    • What you imagine happening from the deployment of your ideology is a free-floating collective of skilled people from all persuasions.
      What you will get is an entire world of American Idol. People lined up to have their “uniqueness” celebrated without, you know, bothering to ever learn an instrument, write a song, start and manage and negotiate with a band. Sure the odd great singer will get discovered. But mostly the line is full of people with no ability to self-reflect on their own ability and no ability to go past adversity and learn something real and valuable.

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