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Kindergarten retention fails to help academic achievement

October 3, 2005

WASHINGTON, October 3, 2005 — For nearly 100 years, educators have debated the benefits of grade retention versus social promotion. A new examination of research on this perennially-controversial issue indicates that retention does not improve achievement among kindergartners in reading or mathematics, nor does it facilitate instruction by making classrooms more homogeneous academically. The report, based on the dissertation of Guanglei Hong, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, appears in the fall issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA), a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal published by the American Educational Research Association.

The study makes use of data from the U.S. Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten cohort (ECLS-K), collected from fall 1998 to spring 2000 and released by the US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The research focuses on three questions:

What is the effect of a kindergarten retention policy?

What is the impact of a school’s retention policy on children who would be promoted?

What is the effect of kindergarten retention on those who are retained?

According to researcher Hong, co-authoring with Stephen W. Raudenbush, University of Chicago, results from the study challenge the practice of routinely using kindergarten retention as a solution to the difficulties experienced by young children. Their work shows that:

There was no evidence of a positive effect of adopting a retention policy.

Grade retention in kindergarten did not seem to improve instruction by creating classrooms that were more homogenous in academic ability.

Kindergarten retention seemed to have constrained the learning potential of all but the highest-risk children. After being retained for one year, the average loss in academic growth was equivalent to almost half a year.

“In recent years, ‘ending social promotion’ has become a popular slogan with the movement to set and maintain high standards and educational accountability. In this new climate, many schools have adopted grade retention at most grade levels, even in kindergarten,” the authors state. Predictors of retention among kindergarteners include characteristics such as non-Hispanic, male, from a single-parent family with lower socioeconomic status and higher number of siblings, and never having received center-based childcare. In addition, the retainees tended to come from kindergarten classes where teachers spent relatively less time in reading and literacy instruction, covered lower-level content topics, and held different standards based on children’s capability. Hong and Raudenbush conclude that “rather than forcing these children to restart from the very beginning, exposing them to meaningful intellectual challenges on a continual basis is perhaps developmentally more appropriate.”

Hong and Raudenbush found no evidence that a policy of grade retention in kindergarten improves average achievement in mathematics or reading. Nor did they find evidence that the policy benefits children who are promoted under the policy. The impact of a retention policy is great only for the small percentage of children who are retained, and the evidence suggests that those children learn less than they would have had they instead been promoted.

This research received support through the American Educational Research Association’s Grants Program from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education; from the National Science Foundation; and from the Spencer Foundation.

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