ERIC Identifier: ED449241 Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Thompson, Charles L. - Cunningham, Elizabeth K.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.
Retention and Social Promotion: Research and Implications for
Policy. ERIC Digest Number 161.
The issue of whether it is better to retain low-performing students in grade
or to pass them along with their age-mates has been both hotly disputed and
heavily studied for decades. Advocates of retention have maintained that it
sends a message to all students that weak effort and poor performance will not
be tolerated, and that it gives lagging students an opportunity to get serious
and get ready for the next grade. Opponents have argued that retention
discourages students whose motivation and confidence are already shaky, and that
promoted students gain an opportunity to advance through the next years
curriculum, while retained students go over the same ground and thus fall
farther behind their advancing peers.
For many years, research on social promotion and retention simply compared
the two. Researchers asked whether low-performing students who repeat a grade
fare better or worse than similarly low-performing students who are promoted. In
contrast, more recent no promotion policies do not replace social promotion with
simple retention that recycles students through the same grade they have failed.
Instead, the policies are intended to replace both social promotion and simple
retention with identification of students at risk for retention and aggressive
intervention to catch them up to their peers.
This digest highlights major findings about social promotion; retention; and
newer programs that identify students at risk of retention, give them extra
assistance, and use retention as a last resort.
FINDINGS FROM THE RESEARCH
Overall, neither social
promotion nor retention leads to high performance. If the goal is to bring
low-performing students up to the higher standards now being asserted across the
nation, neither retention nor social promotion is effective. In different
studies, one or the other has been found to offer an advantage, but neither has
been found to offer a large, lasting advantage, and neither leads to high
It is impossible to tell how common social promotion is. Currently, virtually
no statistics are kept on social promotions, in part because few districts
explicitly embrace or admit to the practice.
* Some evidence supports, and little evidence disputes, the indictment of
social promotion. Critics of social promotion argue that it frustrates promoted
students by placing them in grades where they cannot do the work, sends the
message to all students that they can get by without working hard, forces
teachers to deal with under-prepared students while trying to teach the
prepared, gives parents a false sense of their children's progress, leads
employers to conclude that diplomas are meaningless, and dumps poorly educated
students into a society where they cannot perform. Some early evidence from
districts that have eliminated social promotion supports this indictment, and
even opponents of "no social promotion" policies do not defend social promotion
so much as say that retention is even worse.
Retention is common. Nationally, no statistics are kept on retention, but
reasonable estimates based on census data suggest that as many as one-third of
all students have been retained at least once by the time they reach high
school. For boys and minorities, retention is even more common. Nationally, by
high school, the retention rate for boys is about ten percentage points higher
than for girls. In the early grades, retention rates are similar among whites,
African Americans, and Hispanics, but by high school, the rate is about 15
percentage points higher for African Americans and Hispanics than for whites.
Transitions are peak times for retention. Students are most commonly retained
at the end of the year after the transition into elementary school, into middle
or junior high school, and into high school.
Retention can help sometimes, but early retention is harmful, and overall,
retention is risky. Retention may help some students in some circumstances, but
there are serious risks associated with it. Retaining students in first grade is
surprisingly common and frequently harmful. Even the best-designed of recent
studies that found in favor of retention in general also found that students
retained in first grade do worse than expected, both academically and
emotionally. There is also substantial evidence that retention in kindergarten
is equally harmful. Being removed from a group of peers with whom a student has
just gotten comfortable seems to compound the difficulty of adjusting to school
and to set the child back rather than help.
A recent study of Chicago's "no social promotion" policy (see below)
indicates that retention is harmful as late as third grade. While early research
on the success of the Chicago program shows that students, especially those with
the lowest prior scores, showed impressive gains after a full year of
intervention and intensive summer instruction, retained third graders scored
significantly lower than promoted third graders.
For other grades, the research is mixed. A few well-designed studies have
found that retained students do better academically and feel better about
themselves and about school during the first three years after retention.
Consistent with the Chicago findings reported here, the biggest advantage was
found in a district that identified students early, attempted to avoid retention
through re-mediation, and gave special assistance to retained students. Even
there, as in other studies, the advantage for retained students declined each
year and washed out altogether after three years. Other studies have found that
retention either offers no advantage or actually harms students. Taken together,
the studies find that simple retention -- retention without efforts at
prevention and special assistance for those retained -- is especially risky.
Retaining students, regardless of the grade at which they are retained,
increases the likelihood that they will drop out of school.
Retention is not cost effective. Retention is expensive: at a minimum, it
entails the cost of an additional year of schooling for each student retained.
On the whole, retention is not a cost-effective response to poor performance
when viewed in the light of cheaper or more effective interventions, research
findings demonstrating no advantage to, or even harm from, retention, and the
tendency for gains from retention to wash out.
The effects of retention vary with contexts, treatments, and individual
student characteristics. Some of the differences in study findings result from
differences and flaws in research design. But many of the differences probably
just reflect variations in family, school, and community contexts; in the ways
that retained students are treated as the decision to retain them is announced,
during the repeated year, and afterwards; and in individual students.
Chicago recently instituted a policy that bars social promotion, establishes
"gateway" grades where students must pass standardized tests to be promoted,
creates mechanisms to identify students at risk for retention, provides
after-school assistance during the school year and mandatory summer instruction
for those who need it, but does retain students who fail to meet the standards
even with the extra attention.
Early research on the consequences of Chicago's policy indicates that most
students made impressive standardized test score gains. Students with the lowest
prior scores made the largest measured gains. But third graders learning gains
actually declined after the policy was implemented. And students who were
retained were not helped by a second pass through the grade they failed.
IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY
Policymakers considering no social
promotion policies should know that while such policies can pay off for the
majority of students, several cautions are in order:
* The large numbers of students retained in first grade and even in
kindergarten, together with the finding that early retention often harms
students, underline the importance of preschool programs that prepare children
to succeed in school.
* The findings regarding early retention indicate that promotion gateways
should not be introduced in early grades. Rather, student progress should be
closely tracked from the earliest grades, with swift re-mediation provided to
students who are lagging.
* The transitions into middle and high school also warrant special attention
for students at risk of retention--both before and after a transition is made.
* Sound decisions require multiple assessments. The decision to promote a
student should not be made on the basis of a single test, and especially not a
single administration of a single test. Standards developed by several
professional societies condemn use of a single administration of a single
assessment to make any high stakes decision, instead encouraging the use of
several sources of evidence in making such decisions. Therefore, provisions
should be made for students to take accountability tests more than once if
necessary and for local educators to use additional evidence in making promotion
* Research also confirms what most in the current debate already recognize:
if the alternative to social promotion is simple retention, there is a serious
risk that retained students will be harmed and only a little evidence that they
may be helped. There is some evidence that with extra assistance retained
students may do better academically for up to three years than they would have
done if promoted. Yet the gains wash out after three years, and even these
retained-but-assisted students are more likely to drop out of school than if
they had not been retained.
* If policymakers wish to minimize the chance that retained students will be
harmed, and maximize the chances that they will be helped, then policy should
call for special assistance to continue during and beyond the year in which the
student is retained.
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