Holding Students Back: Good for Kids or Test Scores?

In the midst of an article about Uncommon Schools, a non-profit charter school company, we discover this interesting effect of holding back students who fail a grade:

High retention rates can help to boost test scores at charter schools, at least in the short term. Students may do better on tests the second time, and retained students' scores are dropped from their cohort, so a class of students could improve its test scores over time because the lowest performers have been removed. And sometimes low performers simply leave the charter school when they find out they're going to be held back.

But it's good for the kids, right? Well:

Nick Montgomery, a senior research analyst at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which conducted a long-term study of retention policies, says his team found that students who were held back after elementary school were more likely to drop out later on. In addition, Montgomery says, "students who repeat grades during middle school learn somewhat less than their [low-performing] peers who don't repeat."

...But the Chicago research found that simple repetition is not enough -- students who are struggling to understand their coursework generally need more intensive interventions, not just a do-over. Retention brings other problems, too. Researchers have written about the psychological impact of separating students from their age group. It can be hard on the retained students, but also on teachers and younger students. They may have to contend with kids who are 15 and 16 years old in middle school and who may have behavioral problems in addition to their academic issues. At the same time, students who are retained are by nature already struggling and more likely to be disengaged with school. Being held back can increase their frustration by moving back the finishing line of graduation and, in the words of the Chicago Consortium researchers, making it seem less "worthwhile to continue."

But, when not taken into account, retention can alter the evaluation of charter schools:

Every year, local papers in New York City compare the test scores of students in the city's charter schools to those of students in regular public schools, and charter schools usually come out ahead. But Gill, the Mathematica researcher, notes that "a kid who is taking the test for a second time around is likely to do better than the first time around," giving charters an advantage in each year's media contest.

Retention rates also affect the outcome of more sophisticated analyses. Students who are held back are typically a school's worst performers, but often such students can't be counted in studies. For the Mathematica study that found KIPP students outperformed regular public-school students, Gill says he and his co-authors had to estimate the performance of students who'd been held back so as not to have missing data.

Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford who specializes in statistical methods, consulted on a study of student achievement in KIPP middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. The researchers encountered a problem, however: Many students who started at the schools in fifth grade didn't reach eighth grade within three years because they'd either moved to another school or repeated a year, making longitudinal measurements difficult. "Studies that don't deal with this carefully should be suspect," Reardon says. "They run the risk of producing estimates that make charter schools look better than the other schools."

By the way, in Boston, the teachers union (the evilest force for evil in human history) pointed this out a while ago:

Many "high-performing" charter schools have exceptionally high dropout rates. This "improves" their ratings. Meanwhile, many of these students who drop-out return to the public schools who must try to succeed where the charter school failed.

But, remember, educational 'reform' is all about the evidence. Or not.


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By Jessica S. (not verified) on 20 Oct 2010 #permalink

Interesting laws here in Michigan that relates to the idea of retention.

If a student takes longer than 4 years to graduate from high school, but they do graduate, we can no longer count that student towards our successful graduation rates--even if it is only an extra semester or year.

Students take the Michigan Merit Exam (standards based test) as Juniors regardless of ability level entering school. Every student takes this test including special education students and students who have been socially promoted prior to getting to high school. According to NCLB, 100% of students must pass this test in math in 2012. There are no retakes allowed.

I am all for reforming how I teach and trying different things to help students learn material, but I do think that there is too much stick and not enough carrot...

Publicly funded yet privately managed â Charter School fraud is an easy concept. Charters can be succesful it depends on the âagendaâ of the the managing company. Accountability has not caught up to the growth of the Charter movement. In the USA we have an Islamic Imam â Fethullah Gulen (Gulen Movement) that manages over 130 US Charter schools they have taken over $1 billion in Educational monies in the last 10 years and are growing like rapid fire.
The Gulen schools have a network of foundations and instutitions layered over the schools and much of our educational money is going to non-educational expenses such as: Turkish Olympiads, trips to Turkey for the students and local politicians, H1-b Visas of over 2,000 uncredentialed teachers from Turkey (while American teachers are handed pink slips) this money is to fuel the grand ambition of Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile (for a reason) in the Poconos, PA area with his $25 billion in wealth from inflitration in: education, media, police, poltics and military. Seems the same model works very nicely in the USA. Do your research!!!

By Frank Ergenekon (not verified) on 20 Oct 2010 #permalink

This article really opened my eyes to the practice of holding back students. I have never before considered the effect on the student being retained. Previously, I assumed that if a student failed a grade and had to redo it, he would already be familiar with what heâs doing and it would be easy to pass. However, I didnât take into account, as the article said, that itâs a struggle for the retained student to be separated from his own age group. I can imagine how difficult that must be, especially knowing that your friends will be graduating before you. Thinking from a teenagerâs point of view, being away from my friends and having to redo a year would make me less motivated to work. Also, the article explained how test scores of students being held back usually donât count within school evaluations because they are likely to do better than others if they had taken the same test the previous year. The article portrays retained students as non-important students looked down upon, and I donât think this school policy is right. I like my high schoolâs policy where if a student performs poorly in a class, he can retake it in summer school to get a better grade. If they are still struggling, they should be getting closer help. Thatâs what teachers are for. No student should have to redo an entire school year!

I have never really thought that holding back a child in school would have its disadvantages. I always thought that the student would do better the second time and therefore being held back would have its advantages. However, after reading this article it made me realize that holding back a child in a grade level may not be that good. I realized that itâs a debatable argument of whether or not holding back a student is good or bad. I agree with the article in the fact that itâs good in the short term, but bad in the long term for the student. On the good side, students will get better grades on tests they are taking for the second time, and therefore will do better. However, as the article explained, most students drop out of school after being held back. Also, I completely agree with the statement of how it affects their social life, being with an entire new group of kids younger than them. This may be their new skill level, so they are with peers at the same skill level, however socially it may be hard for them to associate with this new group of younger kids at a different age level than them. They would not be associated with their group of friends as much, and most likely will have to make new friends, which can be hard enough. Therefore, in my opinion holding back a student may have its benefits, but on the other hand has its disadvantages as well.

By Sarina Sorrentino (not verified) on 24 Oct 2010 #permalink

This article is very interesting and I believe it focuses on an important issue. One of most schoolsâ top priorities is bullying and preventing it. This directly correlates with the retention of students to improve grades. When a student is found out to be older and different many children will label the child as weird and maybe even dumb. This leads to exclusion and possibly depression in the retained child. As previously stated a second chance might not be enough leaving the child still behind younger peers decreasing self esteem. So when people do think about retaining their child for a year, they should ask themselves if a higher number on a piece of paper is worth more than the social well being of their child.