The Des Moines Register’s editorial on student retention is lazy and irresponsible

Dr. John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, spent 15 years synthesizing the vast body of peer-reviewed, meta-analytical research pertaining to student achievement. In his highly-acclaimed book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, he highlighted 138 different factors that can influence student learning success. Grade-level retention was one of only five factors that negatively impacts student achievement. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: grade-level retention is one of the few school factors that actually decreases student academic success.

Hattie went on to state:

It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative. (p. 99)


The only question of interest relating to retention is why it persists in the face of this damning evidence. (p. 98)

Back in January 2014, I noted that

Study after study, researcher after researcher, finds the same few things about retention:

  • No long-term achievement gains. Being retained does not increase academic achievement in the long run. Let’s say that again: being retained does NOT increase academic achievement in the long run. Sometimes we see short-term score bumps but they always wash out by the upper grades. This is true even in Florida, whose educational ‘miracle’ Iowa is apparently desperate to emulate despite having better overall academic achievement, high school graduation rates, etc. A quick comparison of NAEP proficiency rates shows that Florida may have found ways to artificially inflate its 4th grade reading scores – results always look better when low-achievers have been removed from the grade cohort and/or students have had an extra year of schooling – but by 8th grade its students revert back to the lower half of the national rankings. [Quick aside: if Iowans want to reclaim our place at the top of the state education rankings, shouldn’t we be adopting practices of the states that do better, not worse, than us?] This means that – despite intuition and anecdotes to the contrary – there are no long-term achievement differences between students who are retained and those who are ‘socially promoted.’ One more time in case it’s not clear: “there are more positive effects in the long term for promoted students than for retained students – even when matched for achievement at the time of decision to retain or promote” (Hattie, p. 97).
  • Significantly higher dropout rates. Students who are retained don’t do any better academically in the long run but they do have a significantly higher risk of dropping out. For example, one study showed that 65% to 90% of overage children in grade 9 do not persist to graduation. Retention has found to be a stronger predictor of student dropout than socioeconomic status or parental education. That extra year is a killer – literally – when it comes to retained students’ secondary school completion rates. Florida’s graduation rate is 43rd in the country, while Iowa’s is 5th. Again, why are we emulating downward?
  • Lower life success. Retention has been shown to negatively impact long-term life success factors such as postsecondary education attendance, pay per hour, and employment competence ratings. Retained students also are more likely to display aggression during adolescence.
  • No increase in motivation. Retention – or the threat of retention – is not a motivating force for students. Students don’t try harder and aren’t motivated to do better after they’re retained. Instead, retention greatly diminishes student self-concept and impairs self-efficacy. Just to make clear how wrong DE’s statement is, research shows that students would rather wet themselves in class in front of their peers than be retained.
  • Discriminatory impacts. Students of color are four times as likely to be retained as their White counterparts, even when they exhibit the same academic achievement. Students in poverty also are more likely to be retained than their more affluent peers. The burdens that come with being retained are borne primarily by those students whom already are traditionally-disadvantaged by existing schooling practices.

So there we have it: incredible damage to students’ self-concept, substantial increases in students’ dropout rates, and significant reductions in students’ future life success – with bonus discriminatory impacts! – all for the mere potential of a statistically-manipulable, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t test score bump for interstate bragging rights. And, if that weren’t enough, we also get to pay more and get a worse outcome! It would be difficult to envision an educational practice that has less going for it than retention. And yet it is now enshrined into Iowa law, to be made operational (and, apparently, rationalized) by our Department of Education. [One final aside: DE also tries to justify retention because “we really want to get parents to take their child’s literacy development very, very seriously.” Most parents care very much about their children’s literacy development, of course. Parents of struggling readers need help and support, not blame or stigmatization or penalization of their children.

Similarly, I said back in April 2012:

Please realize that it doesn’t matter how many safeguards are put into place before retention occurs. The issue is the retention itself, not the procedures that lead up to it.

The proposed interventions in early grades for struggling readers are desirable and necessary. But, plain and simple, retention hurts kids. It has no proven long-term benefit and many long-term harmful consequences. If you want to ensure that students don’t leave elementary school illiterate, hire a personal tutor for academically-struggling 4th graders. It would be cheaper than paying for their repeated 3rd grade year.

In that January 2014 blog post I said that

Retention is not a policy unknown. Even the laziest of reporters or legislators can do a quick Google Scholar search and see that decades of peer-reviewed studies are clear that retention hurts kids and will hurt Iowa.

As evidenced by today’s editorial favoring student retention, apparently even that quick Google Scholar search was too much for the editors at The Des Moines Register. Citing a poll of Iowa citizens (that they commissioned) and a quote from Governor Branstad – both of which are disproven by actual data – appears to be all of the effort that they were willing to make as they lazily and irresponsibly ignored the vast weight of research and data on this issueStudents rate grade-level retention as a life stressor on par with losing a parent and going blind. Retention flies in the face of both overwhelming research and day-to-day evidence that children learn at different rates. But clearly none of this matters to the Register editors. Unless we want to be like Mississippi, the children of Iowa deserve better from our state’s flagship paper. 

Mackenzie Ryan retention 'loophole' tweet

Image credit: Mackenzie Ryan, Des Moines Register education reporter

P.S. Whatever mechanisms exist in Iowa law for third grade students to avoid being retained are the result of knowledgeable parents, educators, and policymakers advocating against proven-to-be-harmful policy. They’re not ‘loopholes.’ They represent sound educational practice backed by data.

[And, yes, the Iowa Reading Research Center should have written this instead of me.]

6 Responses to “The Des Moines Register’s editorial on student retention is lazy and irresponsible”

  1. Wouldn’t a standards-based graduation paradigm mitigate most, if not all, of the negative affects of retention (because the kids would not actually be retained, physically) while ensuring that they are not just “passed on” to the next level unprepared?

  2. Yes, if school systems were implementing standards- and competency-based paradigms with fidelity, centuries-old belief systems about same-age grouping, leveling, and punishments would disappear. We’d work with individual students to help them along their own pace and path through whatever we expected them to learn.

    Iowa has competency-based legislation already in place, which results in yet another disconnect. We say that students can and should learn at their own pace, then ignore that when it comes to retention.

  3. The fallacy in all of this is the assumption that if you can’t read by 3rd grade you are doomed. This is only true if we continue to believe that all 8 year olds should be in the same grade and learn the same stuff at the same rate and we continue to sort and separate kids by the date of their birth. Sure, the research is clear because the research assumes that grade and age-based learning systems are benign – in the current obsolete system it is more true that if you aren’t there by 3rd grade you will be behind. How about a conversation about removing outdated structures and systems that create this artificial problem in the first place?

    That people need to be able to effectively comprehend written material is obvious. As soon as we understand that every brain comes to reading in a unique way and that when a child learns to read is less important than that they learn to read, we will continue to spend time and money on feckless solutions. When the system you are working with is obsolete and yet you continue to try to “fix” it because you assume it is broken, the worse things get. As a personal example – one of my daughters was an outstanding reader right out of the gate, the other struggled. Now as young adults, guess which one reads more for pleasure and for learning? Yep, the one who was labeled a “poor reader” when she was 8.

  4. And this should surprise no one. Look at how many studies show that Foreign Languages should be taught conversationally at early elementary levels. Instead we teach them by memorizing vocabulary and grammar as electives in the secondary level. We literally do the opposite of what has shown to be effective, and there is no push to change it, and then wonder why our population has the worst multi-lingual skills of the entire developed world…

  5. This post will resonate with a lot of families. I’ve dealt with this for 2 out of my 3 kids in Kentucky public schools and each time had to give a mini-lesson on retention research. What is worst is that retention is sort of used as a mini-weapon on the part of (otherwise very well meaning) educators against parents. As a parent who happens to be a professor of Ed. I can handle it … but most families don’t have that background. Retention should be REMOVED, not reinforced, as a weapon in schools.

  6. Thanks! It’s also good to see that we are still doing the right things for our kids. Like Justin said, it is stressful for us and I feel like threatening retention has been used against us far too much in our children’s short time in the public education system. I was shocked when it was mentioned at our first parent teacher for a kindergartener that had only been in school for less than 10 weeks!

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