“Catch Them While They’re Young”?: Associations between Early Grade Retention and Later Academic Outcomes



Greenburg, Jordan E

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Grade retention is a commonly used intervention for children who struggle in school. However, empirical research does not unequivocally support its efficacy. Some studies suggest that both the timing (e.g., early vs. late) and frequency of retention may be associated with later outcomes, though this research is limited. Using data from the Miami School Readiness Project (MSRP), I examined retention and outcomes within a large, ethnically diverse (52.8% Hispanic/Latino, 43.5% African American/Black, 3.7% White/Asian/Other) sample of students (N = 4,763). Most of these students (90.3%) were receiving free/reduced lunch. I asked the following research questions: (1) in kindergarten through 5th grade, how many students are retained in each grade, and how many of these students are retained more than once within elementary school? (2) what student characteristics are associated with being twice-retained? (3) do academic outcomes (5th grade) of students who were retained once in kindergarten through 3rd grade differ from those who were twice-retained before 3rd grade? (4) do academic outcomes (5th grade) depend on whether students were retained in kindergarten vs. 1st vs. 2nd grade? (5) do students who were held back for the first time in K-2 perform better in 5th grade compared to students who were performing were retained for the first time in 3rd grade? Results indicate that approximately 15% of the larger MSRP sample was retained in elementary school, with most retention happening between kindergarten in 3rd grade. Twice-retention was rare, with only 391 (1% of all students; 8% of retained students) students being held back more than once. When twice-retention did occur, the second retention happened most often in 3rd grade. Students who were retained twice performed more poorly on school readiness and initial school performance and were more likely to be Black and receive free lunch. Black boys in particular had high rates of being twice-retained. Students who were retained twice had poorer 5th grade outcomes, even after controlling for variables such as poverty and initial school performance. Timing within early grades (K-2) was not associated with later academic outcomes, and early vs. late retention was not associated with 5th grade GPA or math achievement. These results provide evidence that multiple retentions in elementary school not only are harmful but are also disproportionately affecting one group of students (Black males), suggesting this policy should be more closely examined. Further, these results suggest that early grade retention (compared to later retention) is not associated with more positive long-term outcomes.



Grade retention, Academic achievement, Timing, Reading, Elementary school