April 15, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 14

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    Consortium report: Retention does not help low-performing third, sixth graders

    Melissa Roderick

    The Chicago Public Schools’ retention policy has so far not helped the city’s low-performing students, according to two new studies released Tuesday, April 6, by researchers Jenny Nagaoka, Melissa Roderick and Elaine Allensworth at the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

    Chicago’s policy, implemented in 1996, continues to be one of the most controversial education initiatives today. Under the policy, students are retained in the same grade based primarily on their third-, sixth- and eighth-grade scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Between 7,000 and 10,000 students are retained each year across the three grades.

    Over the past five years, consortium researchers have been investigating the effects of this retention initiative, as well as the effect of ending social promotion. The two reports center on the effects of third- and sixth-grade retention on students’ test score improvements and on the effect of eighth-grade retention on student dropout rates.

    In Ending Social Promotion: The Effects of Retention, Nagaoka and Roderick track retained third- and sixth-grade students’ academic progress and estimate the effects of retention on achievement gains. They compare the achievement growth of students who scored slightly below the test-score cutoff to comparison groups of similarly low-achieving students.

    “Whether we use very basic comparisons or advanced statistical models, our results are consistent. Retention did not help low-performing students,” said Roderick, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration.

    In the third grade, retention did not improve achievement gains. But the report finds significant negative effects of retention at the sixth-grade level. After two years, the achievement gains of retained students were about 6 percent lower than those of comparable promoted students. Additionally, close to 20 percent of retained third- and sixth-graders were placed in special education within two years of the retention decision—a rate three times that of other low-achieving students.

    Roderick noted that while after-school and summer-school programs assisted many students in avoiding retention, there were few supports provided for the students who were retained. “Retaining students under policies such as Chicago’s presents teachers with an extremely difficult problem,” explained Roderick. “What do teachers do with a student who is struggling, has been consistently behind, but needs to make substantial progress in a short period of time? The Chicago administration gave little guidance or support to teachers in addressing that problem. It’s not surprising that teachers and schools increasingly turned to special education as the answer.

    “The problem is that there is little research support for the idea that special education effectively helps with students’ reading problems.”

    Nagaoka added, “These students were falling substantially behind their peers even before they reached the third and sixth grade, and once they entered these grades, neither social promotion nor retention closed the achievement gap.

    “Given this evidence, waiting until third or sixth grade to intervene is too late and is not a judicious use of resources.”

    Allensworth, author of the companion report, Ending Social Promotion: Dropout Rates in Chicago After Implementation of the Eighth-grade Promotion Gate, compared groups of students prior to and after the implementation of the retention policy in 1996. Results show that the costs of the policy outweigh the benefits for very low-achieving students.

    While dropout rates did not increase system-wide because of steady improvements in dropout rates among average and high-achieving students, dropout rates increased among the lowest-achieving students—the very students the policy intended to help.

    Thousands of low-achieving students have been held back from entering high school, elevating these students’ risk of dropping out by age 17 by 8 percentage points, on average.

    “Students who have been retained previously in school are especially vulnerable for being retained again in the eighth grade. And over-age students who fail the eighth-grade test drop out of school at exceptionally high rates,” said Allensworth.

    “Racial disparities in dropout rates also grew, as dropout rates declined for Asian, Latino and white students but not for African-American students. These students were disproportionately more likely than students of other races to be retained and thus to drop out,” continued Allensworth.

    “The bottom line is that, without substantial supports, neither social promotion nor retention will improve low-performing students’ learning gains. But retention puts these students at risk for other problems,” said Roderick. “The school system needs to provide early interventions to these students before they reach the third grade. And we need to provide more support to teachers as they manage the needs of these low-performing students in the later grades.”