Commentary

Third grade retention: to understand its effects, look at all the data

Lawmakers are considering pushing retention for more third-graders who aren’t proficient at reading. (Getty Images)

Few moments in the rites of passage through childhood are as important as the news of whether one is promoted to the next grade or retained another year in one’s current grade. Ask any parent about the exhilaration and feeling of accomplishment accompanying news that your child is promoted, or the traumatic child and family impact upon learning that student has been retained.

In this session, the General Assembly will consider legislation requiring retention for any student not passing Indiana’s third grade reading assessment, IREAD. In addition to personal trauma, there would be a fairly high financial burden to retaining many additional third graders—the most comprehensive study in Indiana suggests it could cost the state over $105 million a year. The important question then, is whether the benefits of the new retention policy justify the financial and personal costs.

Proponents of retention answer, yes, typically citing studies that show a positive short-term benefit for struggling students who are retained. But how much stock can we place into the isolated results that they cite?

The short answer is not much. Cherry-picking studies that give the results one is looking for is a poor strategy for summarizing research findings, and a questionable way to make policy.

Follow the data

In virtually any research field, on any topic, there are a range of results, possibly some positive, some neutral, and some negative. To get the most complete and accurate picture, researchers rely on reviews of many studies across time and location.

Fortunately, there are a number of such reviews on the effects of grade retention on future outcomes. They allow us to get past cherry-picking for a broader and more accurate picture of what works. One of the best and most recent is a review of a broad range of research on retention published in 2021 in the journal Educational Research Review.

That review examined 84 methodologically sound studies published between 2000 and 2019. As expected, there was a range of findings—positive, negative, and neutral. The positive and negative results balanced each other out, so that the overall impact of grade retention on academic performance was almost exactly… zero.

That means if the state of Indiana were to pass the policy of retaining all students not passing the 3rd grade reading test, for all of the financial cost and emotional trauma that would bring, we could expect no difference in academic achievement in our state. Not a very sound purchase.

That’s just on average: The results look even less promising for Black and Latino students. Students of color and low-income students are significantly more likely to be retained. And unfortunately, the outcomes of grade retention are worse for Black and Brown students, placing them at higher risk for being disciplined, dropping out, and not continuing their education past high school.

In one recent study, widely cited by proponents of retention, third grade retention seemed to have a long-term positive impact on achievement without negative effects on social or behavioral outcomes. That is, if you’re White. For Black and Latino students, the positive results of retention were much less likely to maintain past the first year, with serious long-term negative impacts on absences for Black students.

Long-term

Nor is there positive news for retention’s long-term impacts. While short term improvements for grade retention have been found, in general the long-term effects, especially for children of color, are dismal. Grade retention is associated with dropoutfailure to enroll in college, and even convictions for violent crime.

We should all be concerned about reading failure by third grade and do all we can to prevent it. But there are a number of more positive and preventive approaches that the state could implement that would likely have a similar price tag to third grade retention, without the personal and family trauma and racially discriminatory effects of grade retention.

Senate Bill 1, the literacy measure, contains several preventive measures to improve early literacy, such as increased access to summer school. Like 3rd grade retention, some of these strategies appeared in the Mississippi program that Indiana is using as a model. But even proponents of the Mississippi approach admit that retention is not a necessary part of a program to improve early literacy. Why not simply implement programs we know work and avoid those that don’t?

To benefit our own lives and finances, we make careful and well-researched decisions about our family’s choices. Why would we do otherwise when it comes to state policy about our children’s education?

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Russ Skiba
Russ Skiba

Dr. Russ Skiba is Professor Emeritus at Indiana University and former Director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. His research focuses on school violence and school discipline, particularly racial/ethnic disparities in suspension and expulsion. He has testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and both houses of Congress. He co-founded the University Alliance for Racial Justice, a group of university-based educators dedicated to supporting the struggle against discrimination and disadvantage, and helped establish the Indiana Educational Equity network, a statewide coalition devoted to educational equity for Indiana’s youth. The most recent Education Week poll identified Skiba as one of the top 200 scholars in the nation influencing educational policy.

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James Joseph "Jim" Scheurich
James Joseph "Jim" Scheurich

Dr. James Joseph “Jim” Scheurich is a professor at Indiana University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). He is an anti-racist, community activist scholar committed to addressing the institutional and structural inequities in educational and community contexts. His research interests include anti-racist equity in education and communities and qualitative research methodologies. For over 15 years, he has been the editor of the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, serves on several research journal editorial boards, and has published over fifty-five articles in research journals and ten books. In addition, he has been awarded three national scholarship awards.

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Hardy Murphy
Hardy Murphy

Dr. Hardy Murphy has a split appointment with IUPUI School of Education and the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning. His work at Indiana University includes training and facilitation focused on culturally responsive practices and issues of disparities in discipline, teacher and principal evaluation, school improvement and educational equity. Dr. Murphy is also involved in numerous research projects including statewide research on teacher evaluation, charter schools and inclusion of students with disabilities. His past experiences include 13 years as Superintendent of District 65 in Evanston, IL and 20 years with the Fort Worth Independent School District in Fort Worth, TX.

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