Despite overwhelming evidence that retention is ineffective and even damaging, researchers Lorrie Shepard and Mary Lee Smith estimated that approximately 2.6 million children are retained each year in U.S. schools at an annual cost to the taxpayer of $10 billion. And, the number of retained students is growing by as much as 20% annually. Though studies have long demonstrated that retained students do not catch up academically, that retention can cause psychological and emotional damage, and that the practice dramatically increases the chances that a child will eventually drop out of school, most parents and educators still believe that retention is necessary in order to maintain high standards.
Alternatives, such as transitional first grades, in which children determined to be at risk of school failure are given an extra year to mature and to develop academic readiness skills, have been tried. But, while conceding limited short-term success, recent research indicates transitional programs do not provide lasting academic or social gains for students.
A study by Phillip C. Ferguson, an educator in the Uinta County School District in Wyoming, compared a group of children in a transitional class to a control group of children who, though also identified as developmentally unprepared for first grade, were allowed to go directly into regular first grade classes. Ferguson found that by second grade, these two groups did not differ significantly in social skills, self-esteem, educational achievement, or rate of placement in special education.
However, the group given an extra year in the transitional class was rated significantly more aggressive than the control group that had gone from kindergarten directly in to a regular first grade. Ferguson suggests that placing these children in a transitional class may have damaged their self-concept. Ferguson concludes that the readiness delay observed in many children is short-lived and over time disappears in most children. Ferguson’s study supports the finding of other researchers who have concluded that after first grade, there is no academic performance advantage for students who receive an additional “year to grow”.
Ferguson cautions that despite efforts to achieve parity between the two groups of children in this study, some children could not be placed in transitional classes because their parents refused to accept the school’s recommendation for placement. The families who refused placement may have differed from those who accepted placement in ways that affected their children’s achievement and adjustment to school. Ferguson reports that some previously studies indicate that a very small percentage of children held out of first grade for a year may benefit in social or behavioral ways, but he adds that educators have been unable to predict which children will benefit.
Several states are now encouraging schools to do away with retention in any form. Some elementary schools are using nongraded primary units to enable children to work toward achievement goals that are measured only when developmental differences tend to even out – usually when children are about 9 years old.
“Longitudinal Outcome Differences Among Promoted and Transitional At-Risk Kindergarten Students” Psychology in the Schools Volume 28, Number 4, pp. 139-146.
Published in ERN September/October 1991 Volume 4 Number 4