For years, researchers and educators have been debating the pros and cons of grade retention policies with respect to how holding back a student affects that student’s learning, behavior and motivation. New research in the American Journal of Education examines these policies from a new perspective: how holding back a student affects the student’s classmates. New research finds that having students in a class who have repeated a grade can lower the standardized test scores of the rest of the students.
The study by Michael A. Gottfried of Loyola Marymount University followed five cohorts of students in Philadelphia public schools for up to five years, from the time they were in the early elementary grades until they reached 5th or 6th grade. Classrooms with retained students had two such students on average each school year.
Results showed that increasing the number of grade-retained students in a class by just two resulted in a statistically significant negative decline in reading and math performance among the other students. The test-score drop was similar to the decline in test scores triggered by living in high poverty.
The impact of sharing a class with students who were repeating the grade differed by gender and race. Girls were slightly more affected than boys by having classmates who had repeated a grade. Likewise, minority students who had never been held back were slightly more affected than white students were. Of all the groups, the test scores of Asian students were the most negatively affected by having a larger number of retained classmates. Family income was less of a factor: The presence of students repeating grades had the same effect on students who qualified for free lunch and their wealthier classmates.
Gottfried concluded that school administrators need to pay attention to this aspect of classroom composition and its effect on test scores. To mitigate the negative effect on the rest of the class, he suggests that schools should identify and target resources to those classrooms with two or more students who have repeated a grade.