The Iowa Department of Education (DE) was quoted recently as saying, “We really aren’t looking at [3rd grade retention] as being punitive.” The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how we as adults perceive retention. What matters is how the retained 8-year-olds perceive retention. And four decades of research is very clear that retention is viewed as extremely punitive by those students that are retained. In fact, students rate academic retention as a life stressor on par with losing a parent and going blind.
John Hattie, author of Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, notes that “it would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative” (p. 99) and that “the only question of interest relating to retention is why it persists in the face of this damning evidence” (p. 98). 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.]
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. The real policy question here is why don’t we care?