Responding to public and political pressure to improve the quality of education, many school districts adopted retention policies and practices over the past decade. Children are "held back" from progressing with their age mates in order to provide them with a "year to grow" or a year to improve their academic performance. Unfortunately, such decisions are made without consulting the available research on retention. Retention is costly--not only in terms of tax dollars, but also the children's well-being. The children being held back pay with a year of their lives and possible continued academic, social and emotional problems.
Recent literature in the field, however, presents conclusive evidence against retaining children. A meta-analysis by Holmes (1989) demonstrated the inefficacy of the practice. Analyzing 54 negative and 9 positive studies, Holmes concluded that retention had consistent negative effects on students. The greatest difference found was related to academic achievement: retained students scored about one-third standard deviation less than similar children who were promoted.
A large number of other meta-analyses and syntheses of retention studies confirm the notion that children recommended for retention, but promoted anyway, do at least as well or better than similar children who are retained in order to improve their academic skills (...). According to Smith and Shepard (1989), only small achievement gains were demonstrated by the retained groups after a retention year (less than 8 percentile points). Therefore, if the goal of retention is to enhance academic achievement, implementation fails to realize this goal.
Because a major reason given for retaining children in grade is to improve academic achievement (...), many studies focus on the academic outcomes of retention. In addition to the literature already mentioned, Niklason (1987) investigated 102 subjects (62 targeted for retention but promoted and 40 retained). Children were grouped according to a young group (grades K-1) or an older group (grades 2-6). Results on reading and arithmetic measures demonstrated that promoted students made more progress the following year than did those who had been retained.
But they're too young to feel bad about being held back, right?
Many studies, however, have found retention to have negative effects on students' self-esteem (Bocks, 1977; Bossing & Brien, 1980; Goodlad, 1954; Moran, 1989; Niklason, 1984). Byrnes (1989) interviewed 71 retained children in grades 1, 3 and 6. When asked if they knew anyone who had been retained, 27 percent did not include themselves in their answers. Of the girls, 43 percent did not include themselves. Eighty-four percent said they would feel upset, bad or sad if they were retained. Only 6 percent gave positive responses. Bracey (1986) reports that children ranked failing a grade only slightly less stressful than going blind or losing a parent to death. Analysis of the children's responses indicates that retained children perceive the experience as a punishment and a stigma.
This fits in well with what we have learned about our kid's behavior. My sister was walking down the hallway with him, and when his former, promoted to K-1 classmates passed by, he hid behind a potted plant.
When it was time for the winter concert at school, he said we should get there at 7:30 instead of the correct 6:30 time. When his mom pointed out that the concert would be over by then, he said he knew that and that's why he wanted to get there at 7:30.
Now, tell me he isn't affected by being held back?!