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Repeat performance

There are mixed findings, but retention should be used carefully

The positive findings from a new study further muddy the waters when it comes to the benefits of holding a student back in their current grade, but it probably makes one thing more clear: retention is only useful in specific, well-considered circumstances.

The study by researchers from Northwestern University and the American Institute of Research tracked English language learners who were retained in third grade at schools in 12 Florida school districts, and found it improved English skills, reduced the time it took to be proficient by half and substantially decreased the chances they needed remedial work.

Beyond that, the research found that it also doubled the likelihood they would take advanced courses in math and science in middle school and tripled the likelihood that the students took college credit courses in high school.

While those findings are very specific to a certain population, other experts have found that some students benefit from being retained – typically students who are capable of doing the work but struggle, students who have missed a lot of school or had an event that distracted them and students whose birthdays are close to the cutoff for a lower grade and perhaps are less mature.

However, a report four years ago very specifically suggested that retention was not helpful. Its title makes that clear: “The Scarring Effects of Primary-Grade Retention? A Study of Cumulative Advantage in the Educational Career.”

That research indicated that students who repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than their siblings and students with similar backgrounds (including parental characteristics, behavioral records and ability) and generally less successful.

Derrick Meador, superintendent Jennings Public Schools in Oologah, OK, who has taught middle school and been a principal and has written about the topic and studied it in his schools, says he believes retention is useful – but in specific circumstances.

He says if a student is behind developmentally they may benefit from an extra year, but only if a plan is in place to assist them. He also says he does not believe retention typically works for students who are simply struggling with academics or have behavior issues.

“It gives students who are truly behind developmentally an opportunity to catch up and provides the student with confidence and stability, particularly if the teacher is the same. But it is most effective when the student receives intensive intervention specific to the areas in which they struggle throughout the year”.

Meador also says that it is critical to involve parents, who might be most concerned about the social stigma attached to retention.

“Parents who are immediately opposed to retention still usually believe that there is a negative stigma associated with it or that their student will be labeled,” he says. “This might have been true 20 or 30 years ago, but now parents have embraced retention for many different reasons.”

He says retention can have negative affects – including social stigma – but he says if done at a younger age those concerns can usually be overcome.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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