Deciding whether to have your child repeat a year of school? When children struggle in school, educators may present the option of retaining or “holding back” the child, particularly in the era of No Child Left Behind. Allowing the child time to master reading or math may seem like a good idea. But is it? Megan Andrew of the University of Notre Dame studied the ‘scars’ left by elementary school retention. Although previous research found that children who were held back could benefit academically in the short run, Andrew’s research finds long-term negative consequences. Making children repeat a year of elementary school leaves lasting scars, according to this new research. The key to helping the scars fade may be what happens before middle school.
Research on Holding Elementary School Children Back
Brian Jacobs published research in 2009 in the American Economic Journal concluding that “retention among younger students does not affect the rate of high school completion.” In 2011, Jill Cannon, writing for the Public Policy Institute of California, concluded, “When retention does occur, students can make sizable gains in grade-level skills” though they were unlikely to reach the same level of mastery as “their non-retained peers.” Cannon writes, “we find that students can benefit from it, at least in the short term.” Recently, Megan Andrew set out to study the long-term implications of elementary school interventions. In her 2014 study, she found “primary-grade retention reduces the odds of completing high school by about 60 percent in matched samples of retained and non-retained students”— and in a sample of siblings with shared family background characteristics. Her research analyzed data from two large studies, “the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, Child and Young Adult supplements (NLSY79-C,YA) and the National Education Longitudinal Study 1988 (NELS88.)” The first began with “a random sample of 12,686 youth ages 14 to 21 in 1979″ and followed the children of the 1979 female youth. These children were largely born in the 1980s. She described the second data set as a “national probability sample of 1,000 schools and 25,000 eighth-graders attending those schools in 1988.”
Taking All the Variables into Account
Andrew explained what makes her research “robust” or scientifically accurate in an exclusive interview with Decoded Parenting: “[P]revious research on the long-term effects of grade retention (such as the effects of grade retention on high school completion) often does not control for students’ measured cognitive ability before a student enters school and becomes eligible or at risk of grade retention. “In my propensity score matching analyses, I account not only for students’ measured cognitive ability before they enter school but their behavioral problems, their home environment, and their mothers’ measured cognitive ability – among other things. These analyses indicate grade retention lowers the probability of high school graduation, on average.” In addition, Andrew compared sibling’s graduation rates with those of their retained brothers and sisters. She notes that, “[e]ven in the sibling fixed-effects analyses, I find that retaining a student in the early elementary school grades lowers the probability of a student subsequently completing high school.” In short, Andrews mathematically controlled for the children’s intellectual background and behavior issues, compared them to their siblings, and determined being held back in elementary school had a strong, separate effect on high school graduation rates.
Recovering from Retention: The Importance of Middle School
Andrew reports her research indicates retained children who are able to attain average academic achievement by middle school go on to graduate high school at higher rates. She discovered “the middle school period is more critical than the early high school period for recovering from early primary-grade retention effects.” The findings indicate “retained students who achieve similar grades and test scores by the end of middle school suffer smaller deleterious effects on their subsequent educational progress.” Working with a retained child early to help them catch up to their peers after being held back is a good strategy for parents, educators, and society at large.
The Stigmatizing Effect of Elementary Retention on High School Completion
In the article, Andrew notes Asian cultures do not hold a “static” view of intelligence, unlike Americans who tend to label people in categories such as “smart” or “dumb” at an early age. Efforts to boost a child’s intellect are often successful, as Jacobs found in the 2009 research. Andrew notes in her interview with Decoded Parenting, there is “important evidence that popularly held beliefs about the static nature of intelligence don’t apply full stop and that acting as if they do leads to negative evaluations by a student and others that likely undermine student success to some extent.” She concludes her findings “constitute consistent and even strong evidence of a scarring effect of grade retention,” and the “best hopes for recovery relatively early in the educational career.”
Advice to Parents of Retained Children
Andrew’s research suggests if it is absolutely necessary to retain your child in elementary school, interventions to build the child’s intellectual capabilities and esteem may be critical in obtaining a high school diploma in the future. Help your child maintain a positive self-image and work to be back on track by middle school, to overcome the long-term effects.