Should We Retain Kids to Raise Reading Achievement? Part I

  • 09 June, 2013

Teacher question:

  I was wondering what your thoughts are on retention of special education students due to the higher demands of the common core standards. Our school uses the "Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project" Benchmark Reading Levels as our primary reading assessment. Student report card grades in reading are based on this assessment.

  Two years ago, a Kindergarten student could be on level B, and be promoted.  Now, two years later, they must be on Level D/E. The pattern continues throughout the grades, what was acceptable a few years ago as grade level is no longer the case. This presents a problem for my students with reading disorders, whose primary struggles are with decoding/fluency, and in turn sometimes comprehension.

  I have dyslexic students who are on grade level in math, but below in reading, and my administrators feel that retaining them in first grade will "give them a chance" and prevent reading failure in the future. I feel that retaining them is not the right decision, as they are on grade level in pretty much everything except decoding/fluency. I think it is wrong to hold back these students and I think the research shows this.  Just wanted to know your thoughts, as you are an expert. 

My response:

First, let’s distinguish the common core from what I suspect you’re confronting. Common core is neither for nor against retention. What you are running into is currently a big policy debate across the nation. Many states and large districts are adopting stricter student retention policies for the primary grades as a big part of their “reading by grade 3” initiatives.

      Why is retention such an issue? Not because of common core, but because of some recent research on the success of Florida’s educational reforms. Some states have accomplished improvement on their state tests, but have faltered on other measures. Not so Florida. It improved on the NAEP, too, and the gains have held up.

Why have they done so well? One possibility is Florida’s test-based retention policy. Jay Greene and Marcus Winters examined the results of this policy in a study reported in the journal, Educational Finance and Policy in 2007.“The results ...suggest that students subjected to the treatment of Florida’s test-based retention policy made signi?cant and economically substantial gains in reading relative to promoted students. Further, that the impact of the policy for reading scores grows after two years is consistent with the idea that retained students will continue to gain ground in reading relative to promoted students in later years as academic material becomes more dif?cult. The fact that the size of the impact found after one and two years is quite similar across these two quite different comparison approaches provides con?dence that our results are robust.” (Greene & Winters, p. 336).

      A more recent study on the same policy was even more positive in its findings (Schwerdt & West, 2013):

        “Although conventional OLS estimates suggest negative effects of retention on achievement, regression discontinuity estimates indicate large positive effects on achievement and a reduced probability of retention in subsequent years. The achievement gains from test-based retention fade out over time, however, and are statistically insignificant after six years.”

      These newer studies tell me that it is possible to retain kids and to get good results from such efforts. However, it might not be that simple. Past studies, unlike these, have detailed lots of problems with retention. In my next blog I'll talk about the one big gap evident in these newer studies, and what some of the past concerns have been. Based on the older studies I have long advised schools against retention, and frankly, I'm not yet convinced, though these newer studies have definitely given me pause and I think this evidence is too good to ignore. I'll explore those ideas more fully next time.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 10:56 PM


"Florida did a great job..."????

As a parent of a child in the Florida public education system, I can only surmise that you have absolutely NO first hand knowledge or experience with the Florida education system and trying to get reading intervention and remediation for a child within that system.

As a parent advocate of a learning disabled child, I connect with parents, like myself, from all over Florida. The picture we would paint of the Florida public education system is much, much bleaker. Our experience is that Florida districts do everything they can to NOT provide the appropriate services for reading intervention and remediation.

There is no research that shows that retention actually works, but there is a body of evidence to suggest that it not only doesn't work, but is extremely harmful.

Isn't the very definition of insanity repeating the same thing over and expecting different results?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 10:57 PM



The state of Florida has seen significant statewide improvement in reading achievement over the past decade; achievement gains remarkable for their size and scope and evident from multiple indicators. In other words real gains. I'm talking about gains that obviously affect many of the more than 4 million children who live in Florida. That is the perspective that I wrote from. Your response says that your child had trouble in Florida schools. We are both right about our evidence, of course, but I think my data are the more appropriate basis for a generalization about the teachers and school systems of Florida.

In terms of your claim that no research supports retention, you might want to re-read my blog instead of just reacting to it. In fact, there are some very well done studies suggesting that it has been effective in Florida--that was the point of the entry. Good luck.

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Should We Retain Kids to Raise Reading Achievement? Part I


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.