In 2001, Dr. Jan Hughes, professor in the department of Educational Psychology, recruited 784 first grade students for an in-depth look at the complex issue of grade retention.
The study, known as Project Achieve, sought to answer the “ultimate” question: Does repeating a year of schooling make a student less likely to graduate?
In the 14 years since, Dr. Hughes has continued to follow that group of students throughout their academic careers; from their first day of school to – hopefully – the moment they graduate high school.
Funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the project seeks to generates a large body of data on the factors that can derail a child’s path to graduation – accounting for teacher-student relationships, social/emotional skills and, of course, grade retention.
As her subjects approach their expected graduation date, Dr. Hughes and her team now begin to see an answer: They can find no evidence that grade retention either helps or harms students’ academic achievement or social or behavioral development.
A Controversial Topic
In the U.S., nearly 2 million students are held back each year. In fact, of the 784 students who participated in the study, 118 were retained within the first year. Grade retention policies are nearly a century old, yet there is little evidence for their effectiveness in helping underachieving students. Similarly, there has been little support that grade retention, by itself, impedes student success.
Many believe that grade retention negatively affects the child’s chances of succeeding by affecting a child’s self-concept and their parents’ expectations for their child. However, while conventional wisdom says that retained students are statistically more likely to eventually drop out of school, few researchers have delved further into the issue.
Dr. Hughes determined the question could only truly be answered by studying a large sample of students, many of whom entered school with low academic readiness skills, over the entire course of their K-12 academic careers, meticulously examining their social, academic, and behavioral functioning.
In a process called propensity matching, she and her team of researchers compared two sets of children: those who were retained and those who were promoted in spite of their poor academic performance. They made sure to match children who were equally likely to be held back, based on a large number of child, family, peer group and school factors.
They found that children retained in the first grade performed better during their repeat year, relative to their peers of similar risk of being retained who were instead promoted. However, this initial benefit quickly disappeared. By the fifth grade, both promoted and retained children did not differ in their achievement, although retained students were, on average, one year older by that time.
How does repeating a grade affect a child’s chances of eventually graduating high school? Hughes says that the study may extend as far as 2017 to fully answer that “ultimate” question.
“Longitudinal studies allow the researcher to understand how children grow and develop,” Hughes explains. “That is, we can understand how an experience such as grade retention, or peer rejection, or a poor relationship with a teacher, can affect long-term outcomes via short-term changes in children's motivation and skills.”
For more information on the study, visit http://projectachieve.tamu.edu