SAN FRANCISCO —Struggling students who repeat first or second grade can make significant short-term gains in their academic skills, according to a study of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Most first-graders made sizeable improvements in reading skills when they repeated that grade, and second-graders made meaningful gains in English language arts and math in the year they were retained.
The study of early elementary school retention in the Los Angeles district—which serves 11 percent of public school students in California—looks at which students are retained and how they fare academically during the year they repeat a grade.
Because of the district's size and diversity, the findings have implications for others, particularly those serving urban areas. They shed light on a practice that is contentious for both schools and parents and whose effectiveness in the early grades is not well understood. California school districts develop their own promotion and retention policies, but the state does not collect information on how frequently students are retained or whether retention leads to academic improvement.
In the Los Angeles district, 7.5 percent of students who entered kindergarten in 2006 were retained before the third grade. Retention rates vary even among schools with similar student populations, reflecting the wide variation in principals' attitudes about the practice. Interviewed as part of the PPIC report, many principals acknowledge that repeating a grade can have short-term benefits. But some remain concerned that holding students back may have adverse long-term consequences.
Children in the district with the lowest scores on kindergarten assessments of early reading skills—the earliest academic measures available—are most likely to be retained in these early grades. Other student groups at higher risk for retention are those entering school at relatively young ages, boys, children from low-income families, English learners, Latinos, and African Americans. A combination of these risk factors—particularly age and gender—can greatly increase the chance of retention. For example, boys who are relatively younger have the highest likelihood of repeating a grade and girls who are relatively older have the lowest.
Students who repeat an early grade—even across groups with different risk factors—can make significant short-term improvement, although they are not likely to achieve the same scores as their peers who do not repeat a grade. The scores of first-graders who were retained rose from an average of 40 percent correct on a reading skills assessment to 64 percent correct a year later. The gains made by children who repeated second grade were also sizeable. The majority measurably improved their skills in English language arts and math, as assessed by the California Standards Tests. A significant number of students attained proficient status, with bigger gains in math than in English language arts. Before repeating second grade, just 1 percent were proficient in English language arts and 6 percent were proficient in math. A year later, 41 percent were proficient in math and 18 percent in English language arts.
"Retention is a very serious step—difficult for a young student and costly for state taxpayers—and early intervention to avert it is in the best interests of everyone. But when other options fail, many young students can benefit, at least in the short term, from repeating a grade," says Jill Cannon, PPIC research fellow, who co-authored the report with Stephen Lipscomb, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research and an adjunct fellow at PPIC. "These findings give educators and parents an estimate of the types of academic improvements that can be reasonably expected."
The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.
For additional resources, visit PPIC's policy page on education.