held back

Holding middle-schoolers back causes dropout rates to spike, new research finds

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.

“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.

The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.

Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.

“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.

“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.

Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.

The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.

Here’s what else the new research tells us.

Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.

The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.

In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.

The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.

There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)

In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.

The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.

There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.

In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.

Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.

Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.

What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.

The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.

In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.

Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.

There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.

“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”

The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.

White students are more likely to avoid being held back.

The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.

For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.

Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.

In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.

Where does this new long-term research leave us?

Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.

But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.

It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.

Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.

“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.