To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.
“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.
The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.
Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.
Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.
A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.
“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.
“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.
Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.
The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.
Here’s what else the new research tells us.
Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.
The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.
In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.
The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.
There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)
In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.
The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.
There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.
In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.
Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.
Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.
What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.
The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.
In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.
Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.
There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.
“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”
The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.
White students are more likely to avoid being held back.
The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.
For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.
Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.
In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.
Where does this new long-term research leave us?
Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.
But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.
It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.
Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.
“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.