Study Finds Steep Decline in Students Repeating Grades
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Study Finds Steep Decline in Students Repeating Grades
 
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For Immediate Release:
December 11, 2014

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Study Finds Steep Decline in Students Repeating Grades

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 11, 2014—Grade retention—the controversial practice of requiring a student to repeat a grade in school due to a lack of academic progress—steadily declined from 2005 through 2010, according to new research published today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.  

The study, Patterns and Trends in Grade Retention Rates in the United States, 1995–2010,” examined retention trends in grades 1 through 9 from 1995 through 2010. The authors—John Robert Warren of the University of Minnesota, Emily Hoffman of the University of Chicago Law School, and Megan Andrew of Notre Dame University—also examined how retention varies by grade, student socioeconomic status, race, gender, geography, parents’ educational attainment, family structure, community setting, and family’s length of residency in the United States.

The authors found that after peaking at 2.9 percent in the 2004–05 school year, the overall retention rate fell by nearly half to 1.5 percent by 2009–10, dropping across all groups of students. Decreases were most pronounced among groups that previously had among the highest retention rates, including boys and minority students. Since 2004–05, group differences in retention rates have shrunk.

Table 1. Annual Retention Rates, Grades 1–9, by Selected Academic Years

Sex

Race/Ethnicity

 

Total

Boys

Girls

 

Whites

Blacks

Hispanics

1994–1995

2.7%

2.8%

2.5%

2.2%

4.4%

3.0%

1999–2000

2.9%

3.5%

2.3%

2.1%

4.9%

3.8%

2004–2005

2.9%

2.9%

2.9%

2.3%

4.9%

3.3%

2009–2010

1.5%

1.6%

1.5%

1.4%

2.0%

1.8%

Across academic years 1994–95 to 2009–10, 2.4 percent of all students repeated a grade, including 6.2 percent of first graders. Over that period, retention rates were highest in first and ninth grades, a pattern that held across all groups of students and in all geographic areas. Across all grades, retention rates were higher not only among boys, blacks, and Hispanics, but also among children of less well-educated parents, children of single parents, urban children, immigrants, and children in Southern and Northeastern states. 

Table 2. Retention Rates by Grade, Across Academic Years 1994–1995 through 2009–2010

Sex

Race/Ethnicity

 

Total

Boys

Girls

Whites

Blacks

Hispanics

Grade 1

6.2%

6.5%

5.9%

5.4%

8.7%

6.9%

Grade 2

2.1%

2.2%

1.9%

1.8%

3.0%

2.4%

Grade 3

1.8%

2.0%

1.6%

1.3%

3.8%

2.1%

Grade 4

1.5%

1.5%

1.5%

1.2%

2.5%

2.0%

Grade 5

1.4%

1.4%

1.3%

1.2%

2.0%

1.5%

Grade 6

1.7%

1.9%

1.5%

1.3%

3.1%

2.0%

Grade 7

2.1%

2.3%

1.8%

1.7%

3.5%

2.3%

Grade 8

1.9%

2.2%

1.6%

1.6%

3.1%

2.2%

Grade 9

2.9%

3.5%

2.2%

2.2%

4.1%

4.2%

Across all grades

2.4%

2.6%

2.2%

2.0%

3.8%

2.8%

“Grade retention may have substantial positive or negative consequences for a student’s future academic achievement,” said Warren. “Given its cost for schools and its potential impact for students, practitioners and policymakers have had surprisingly little information about how often students are made to repeat grades.” 

While the authors did not examine the reasons behind the falling retention rates, they wrote that “they may have to do with changes in states’ accountability policies in conjunction with newly available information from states’ longitudinal student tracking systems.” Few states had student data systems prior to 2005. 

“Optimistically, it also could be the result of earlier research that found only mixed evidence that retention leads to more learning, but consistent evidence that it leads to higher dropout rates,” said Warren. The authors downplayed the likelihood that national economic trends or No Child Left Behind were factors.

To determine a nationwide rate for grade retention, the authors used data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since 1995, an annual supplement to the CPS has gathered information about school enrollment that can be used to infer grade retention. Neither the National Center for Education Statistics nor any other federal agency or private foundation routinely reports grade retention rates in the United States, although some states report their own rates of grade retention based on state administrative data. 

About AERA

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national professional organization devoted to the scientific study of education. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook and Twitter.

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