Study questions belief that retaining students in early grades does less harm than good

iStock_000014442615XSmallGrade retention is still a widespread practice despite extensive research indicating that it is ineffective and potentially harmful. Some supporters of the practice maintain that while retention may have harmful effects on older students, in the early grades (kindergarten through second) it can have a positive impact.

But, a study published in School Psychology Review, by Benjamin Silberglitt, St Croix River Education District, et al., questions that belief, even though, on the surface, results seem to support it.

The study, which included 49 students from five districts in rural and suburban Minnesota, compared students retained in kindergarten through second grade with students retained in grades three through five by examining their reading growth trajectories from first through eighth grades.

All retained students in the five districts were assigned to two groups based on when they were retained. Participating districts did not have a standard policy or procedures for student retention. One group contained 27 students who were early-retained (grades K-2); two of the students were retained in kindergarten, 19 in first grade, six in second grade.  The second group contained 22 students who were later-retained (grades 3-5); nine were retained in third grade, eight in fourth grade, and five in fifth grade.

The two groups comprised 17 females and 32 males. Twenty-nine of the students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch for at least one school year during the study. Each of the school districts gave reading assessments every fall, winter and spring for grades 1-8, with the exception of fall for first grade. Growth curves for the early- and later-retained students were modeled and compared using hierarchical linear modeling.

The later-retained group had a deceleration in its reading growth trajectory after sixth grade,  while the early-retained group’s reading growth rate continued in a consistent upward slope.

According to the researchers, “this trend in the growth curve suggests that students retained later had a more rapid deceleration of growth compared to the more consistent progress rate of the early-retained students.”

Negative socioemotional impact

However, the researchers suggest that rather than perceive this as a benefit for early retentions, it is possible that the data are a result of a greater negative effect from later retentions.”  The researchers note that there is significant data showing a negative socioemotional impact from grade retention, and they hypothesize that “this effect is stronger for students who are older, and more emotionally mature, at the time of the retention.”

They stress, however, that this is only one possible explanation. They also note several limitations to the study, including the relatively small sample size and the lack of examination of student perspective.

The researchers conclude that while early retention has intuitive appeal, the data do not support the idea that retention will enhance student achievement and adjustment.

One unexpected finding was that the average reading score in the winter of first grade was significantly higher for the group retained earlier. The researchers said one would expect to see a lower level of performance before a decision to retain a child in the early grades. “These data could support the relatively long-held belief that retention decisions are often made with teacher judgment and other subjective factors rather than academic data,” they write.

“Does the Timing of Grade Retention Make a Difference? Examining the Effects of Early Versus Later Retention”, by Benjamin Silberglitt et. al., School Psychology Review, Volume 35, No. 1, pp. 134-141.

Published in ERN September 2006 Volume 19 Number 6


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