Skip to main content

Early intervention works, grade retention doesn’t

November 15, 1999

Forcing students to simply repeat a grade doesn’t help children’s educational achievement, but enrolling them in high-quality early childhood programs does, a UW–Madison researcher has found in two separate studies.

Arthur Reynolds, associate professor of social work and educational psychology, followed a Chicago sample of mostly African-American students from kindergarten through eighth grade in a study just published in the Journal of School Psychology. He conducted the analysis with Ann McCoy, then a UW–Madison postdoctoral researcher.

“The question is, do retained children bounce back and catch up with their promoted peers in performance? The answer is no.”

Arthur Reynolds
Associate professor of social work and educational psychology

The study’s major finding: Over time, grade retention does not benefit the children it is designed to help.

“The question is,” says Reynolds, “do retained children bounce back and catch up with their promoted peers in performance? The answer is no.”

In fact, retained children in the study underperformed not only their same-age promoted peers, but also their new, younger classmates after being held back in elementary school during the study period of 1987-1993. Retained students scored about seven months lower in both reading and math achievement than their promoted peers and four months lower in math achievement than their new same-grade peers.

Why the lower achievement? “It’s hard to say,” says Reynolds. “It could be lower expectations from the teachers, the impact of retention itself on children’s self-esteem, or insufficient remedial help after children are retained.

“Chicago schools are now trying to address this problem through summer school and better remedial help for students who are retained. This could lessen the negative impact of retention.”

The strongest predictor of who would be retained in the study was first-grade performance in test scores and grades. That fact offers a tip-off, says Reynolds, on what should be considered a measure to prevent the need for grade retention: good-quality early childhood intervention beginning in preschool.

Reynolds also is about to publish the results of a second study with the Chicago sample, this one conducted with Judy Temple of Northern Illinois University and UW–Madison doctoral researcher Wendy Miedel. He found that participation in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (CPC) reduced both the rate of retention and the rate of later high school dropout.

CPC is a federally funded program providing child education and family support services from preschool through early grades in 24 of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Reynolds’ study of CPC is the most extensive review of any large-scale early childhood intervention program.

His data revealed that preschool participation in CPC cut the high school dropout rate among those students by 24 percent over the comparison group who participated in typical early childhood programs such as all-day kindergarten. And five or six years of CPC participation reduced the rate of school dropout by 27 percent.

Compared to the comparison group, CPC participation also cut the rate of grade retention by up to 50 percent. In contrast, grade retention was associated with a 33 percent higher rate of school dropout by age 18.

Grade retention has an attraction for school districts that early childhood programs don’t, says Reynolds: “Retention doesn’t necessarily take additional resources – you just flunk them. Clearly, a greater emphasis on resources for prevention is needed.

“Our studies show we should be looking at alternatives to grade retention, because retention alone or retention plus remedial help is not the answer to student underachievement. Although remediation is necessary, preventing learning problems before they develop is the most cost-effective strategy.”

Tags: research