Why we should IMMEDIATELY stop retaining third graders

In a study of first, third, and sixth graders, researchers gave students a list of 20 life events. The researchers asked students to rate the events according to stress level. Researchers found students, across grade levels, rated the experiences in this order: losing a parent, going blind, and being retained in school (Anderson, Jimerson, and Whipple 2005; Andrew, 2014). Sixth grade students rated grade retention as the most stressful life event, rating retention more stressful than losing a parent or going blind. (Anderson, Jimerson, and Whipple 2005).

In terms of academic achievement, several studies outlined the negative impact grade retention had on students’ reading and mathematics achievement. Researchers also found early retention increased dropout rates, and decreased participation in postsecondary education (Fine & Davis, 2003; Hong & Raudenbush, 2006; Hong & Yu 2007; Jimerson, Anderson & Whipple, 2002; Ou & Reynolds, 2010; Roderick, 1994; and Xia and Kirby, 2009). 

Despite the research, in 2003-2004, educational leaders in Florida retained 23,348 third graders (Florida Department of Education, 2016) a few years after mandatory retention was signed into law by former Governor Jeb Bush with the A+ Plan. Under the A+ Plan, students were required to earn a level two or higher on the Grade 3 Reading FCAT test to be promoted to 4th grade. After the A+ Plan was signed into law, educational leaders in 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, mandated third grade retention for students who did not meet grade-level expectations in state reading tests (Workman, 2014). In Florida, high stakes and consequences have been the  pillars of school legislation since the 1990s.

Educational leaders, however, have expressed concern that a snap shot of a student's reading score on one day at the end of third grade is not an accurate measure of the student's ability. To retain those students, based solely on the reading score is problematic because important questions hadn't been answered: Does the retention mandate in the A+ plan work? Do the retained students achieve better because they were retained?"

In a recent study, Jasper, Carter, Triscari and Valesky (2016) evaluated longitudinal data to determine if the A+ plan was effective in helping students achieve on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT and acquire a standard high school diploma. In the study, researchers tracked a cohort of retained third grade students from a large southwest Florida school district. Reading assessment data was evaluated for the Grade 3 Reading FCAT. Then researchers evaluated those same students' scores on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT. The scores were then compared. Researchers Also compared that same data for a similarly non-retained group (the control group), who scored at a level 1 but who were not retained. Graduation status and diploma acquisition for both groups was also compared. This is what researchers found:

  • 93% of the retained group in the study remained below a level 3 on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT. In addition, 67% remained at a level one on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT. 
  • 41% of the retained students did not graduate with a standard high school diploma.
  • The non-retained group were 14.7% more likely to graduate with a standard diploma than the retained group.
  • Between 2003-2013, it cost Florida tax payers approximately $587 million FTE funding for the retained students.
  • Approximately 6% of white students were retained while 20% of nonwhite students were retained. Of the students retained in 2003-2004, 69.8% were on free or reduced price lunch.
  • There was a statistically significant difference between retained students and nonretained students regarding Grade 10 Reading FCAT mean scale scores (.000). There was also a statistically significant difference between ethnicity and Grade 10 Reading FCAT scores (.003).

You can see from the graph below, 7 years after retention, 94% of the retained group remained below proficiency. 

          Reading levels of retained students 7 years after retention. 

          Reading levels of retained students 7 years after retention. 

Cost: $587 Million 

Result: 93% remained below proficiency on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT. 

If you would like to read the executive summary or the full study, click the titles below:

Executive summary of my research (Short Version) 



Kathleen Jasper1 Comment