When students fall behind academically, is it more effective to hold them back a year so they can "catch up" or to promote them to the next grade so they can stay with their peers? According to most research, the answer is neither.
Alone, neither simple retention nor social promotion offers a large, lasting advantage, and neither leads to high performance. What's needed, according to most researchers, is a new question: What are the best ways to help struggling students succeed and stay in school? A review of nearly a century of research on the topic suggests that what's needed is a combination of prevention, targeted intervention and sustained support.
"The cumulative evidence does not support the use of grade retention as an academic intervention," researcher Shane Jimerson concluded after his recent comprehensive review of the research literature. He also analyzed 20 studies published between 1990 and 1999--all of which included comparison groups of promoted students--and found that "overall, retained students had lower academic outcomes and more maladjusted socio-emotional and behavioral outcomes, relative to the comparison group of promoted students."
Retention might benefit individual students, but "no study has been able to predict accurately which children will gain from being retained," concluded the National Association of School Psychologists after its own review of the research. Research that specifically examines the effectiveness of "retention-only" vs. "retention-plus" vs. "promotion-plus" policies is thin.
Several studies show that students who are retained at any grade level are more likely to drop out of school, but simple retention without targeted intervention in grades K-3 (especially kindergarten or first grade) is characterized by some as especially "risky." "Being held back twice makes dropping out a virtual certainty," according the U.S. Department of Education.
Research suggests alternatives to both retention and social promotion:
Prevention The problem, according to Judy Temple, Arthur Reynolds and Suh-Ruu Ou, is that retention and other reactive approaches do not address "underlying conditions" that contribute to underachievement.
Targeted interventions Jimerson's analysis of others' research indicates the following remedial strategies have produced statistically significant effects on student achievement (listed here in order of effect size, starting with the largest)
Mnemonic Strategies: Using instructional strategies to enhance memory improves students' higher order thinking skills and
improves their ability to organize knowledge.
Enhanced Reading Comprehension: Students need help learning to decode text, and they need opportunities to practice reading.
Behavior Modification: Students whose behavior is interfering with their own learning can benefit from behavior modification, especially when combined with cognitive strategies. This approach has shown lasting effects in reducing hyperactivity-impulsivity and aggression.
Direct Instruction: This approach includes scripted presentations, small-group instruction, unison responses, signals, fast pacing, rehearsal of corrected strategies and praise.
Formative Evaluation: Ongoing evaluations, with teacher and student feedback, can result in beneficial modifications in instructional programs.
Early Intervention: Results vary, but programs that assist at-risk students to develop cognitive and social skills have been shown to reduce retention rates.
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