Keeping children back a year doesn’t help them read better

Very high stakes. Holtsman, CC BY-NC

If you’re an eight-year-old living in Charleston, South Carolina, you’re soon going to need to study extra hard at reading. The US state has joined in with a policy trend across the country that links children’s chances of progressing from third to fourth grade with their performance on reading tests.

Back in 2012, 14 states plus the District of Columbia had policies in place that hold students back a year on the basis of their reading ability.

New efforts to reverse the trend, in states such as Oklahoma, remain rare. This is despite research showing that holding children back a grade – known as grade retention – causes more harm than good.

Following Florida

In the US, holding children back a grade as a key element of reading legislation can be traced to a 2001 programme Just Read, Florida. Because of this programme, Florida was characterised by the New York Times education writer Motoko Rich as: “One of the pioneers in holding back third graders because of inadequate reading skills.”

But two problems lie in the popularity of such grade retention policies. First, while the Florida model has significant bi-partisan support among both Democrats and Republicans in the US, reviews of the outcomes of the Florida policy show research on it is misrepresented and inconclusive, at best.

Alongside this, 40 years of research into the policy of holding children back a grade refutes the practice.

Long-term consequences

The policy of holding children back a school year remains “widespread” internationally, according to a 2013 study by two Belgian scholars who studied retention and behaviour in Flemish high school students.

Research addressing retention in Senegal, in Belgium, and in Lebanon reinforces disturbing patterns about the overwhelming negative long-term consequences and ineffectiveness of grade retention. In the UK, where the practice is very uncommon, the policy has been assessed as costly and ineffective.

Holding children back a grade is strongly correlated with behaviour problems for retained students. Examining the Florida model, CALDER education researcher Umut Özek concluded, “Grade retention increases the likelihood of disciplinary incidents and suspensions in the years that follow.”

Another 2009 study by the Rand Corporation for the New York City Department of Education, found:

In general, retention does not appear to benefit students academically. Although some studies have found academic improvement in the immediate years after retention, these gains are usually short-lived and tend to fade over time.

Most disturbing are the long-term consequences. As literacy professor Nancy Frey explained:

The practice of retention … is academically ineffective and is potentially detrimental to children’s social and emotional health. The seeds of failure may be sown early for students who are retained, as they are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Furthermore, the trajectory of adverse outcomes appears to continue into young adulthood, when wages and postsecondary educational opportunities are depressed.

Despite a well-established research base discrediting the practice, the policy appears to endure for two reasons. A political and public faith in punitive educational accountability sits alongside a straw man argument that advocates keeping children back instead of “social promotion”, where they are automatically passed onto the next grade regardless of student achievement.

Reward vs punishment

Giving children punishment and rewards for reading ability, like grade retention, is ineffective, especially in the context of teaching and learning. Education writer Alfie Kohn has challenged both for years.

Punishment and rewards shift students' focus away from learning and toward avoiding one or seeking the other. In literacy, that failure has been exposed in the popular but flawed Accelerated Reader (AR) programme that seeks to increase reading through rewards.

Writing about the AR programme, literacy scholar and professor Renita Schmidt explains

If we continue to let AR ask the questions, we may very well lose the interest of our students and create literal readers who only want to ‘get points’ and be done with reading. That’s not teaching and that’s not reading.

But the National Association of Schools Psychologists asserts that neither strategy – repeating a year, nor promoting the student automatically – is an effective remedy.

Alternatives include addressing the powerful influence of how much access children have to books at home. Other research-supported policies, suggested instead of retention by Shane Jimerson and his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, include focusing on parental involvement and targeted practices based on student needs. They also suggest modified reading programmes as well as more holistic approaches to supporting students, including mental health services and behaviour interventions.

But the most urgent political step is to acknowledge that holding children back a grade fails both students and their progress in literacy. Instead, we need an effective and evidence-based policy to replace decades where punishment is preferred over educationally sound practices.