Study: Holding Kids Back in School Can Help Them

Published April 27, 2012

Holding kids back in school is actually better for them in the long run, according to a new study with policy implications.

The study compared groups of third-graders under Florida’s test-based promotion policy and found held-back students outperformed their passed-forward counterparts on standardized tests every single year into seventh grade.

Conducted by Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute for Policy Research senior fellow, the study comes at a pivotal point in the increasing debate about requiring schools to hold back students who cannot perform grade-level work by the end of third grade. Thirteen states have passed or are considering such legislation this year.

“A lot of states are thinking about replicating what Florida has done,” Winters said. “We can say with very high confidence that Florida’s policies had a very large, positive effect on students, so replicating what Florida has done seems like the best option here.”

The Florida Model
Florida’s policy mandates third-grade students pass a state literacy exam. Unless their superintendent intervenes, students who fail are retained one year, in which they receive a state-rated high-quality teacher and undergo remediation.

Under the policy, Florida fourth-graders went from scoring the fifth-lowest in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s reading exam to eighth-highest. In addition, the number of students coming into third grade who need retention and remediation dropped.

“This policy is benefiting the kids who are actually retained,” said Matthew Ladner, a senior researcher for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “But the larger context of the policy shows that it has been a radical success because it has encouraged schools to focus on teaching kids how to read in the first place.”

Creating More Reliable Research
The study quotes a representative critic, Arizona State University professor David Berliner, saying “‘It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental.”

Winters responds most previous research is outdated and unreliable because it fails to take into account factors such as a student’s maturity level or home environment.

“A lot of the policy debate has been centered around very low-quality research, so my hope with this study is to provide a rigorous evaluation of the policy that many states are pointing to when they are considering whether to adopt these test-based promotion policies,” Winters said.

Critics also claim holding a student back can be socially traumatic, but lacking academic skills contributes to that feeling far more, Ladner said.

“What really happens with these kids is that they don’t learn to read and they get passed on grade to grade and fall farther and farther behind each year,” Ladner said. “You wind up with an eighth-grader who can’t read a science textbook, and these kids know instinctively that they’ve been given the short end of the stick. The bottom line is, learning how to read is actually good for your self-esteem.”


Image by Sarah Houghton.