Mandatory retention policies could do more harm than good for Arkansas students

Mandatory retention policies without significant resourcing are often ineffective, financially draining, and damaging to student’s emotional health. Since 2002, 15 states have implemented grade level retention policies as a means to combat “social promotion.” States typically focus retention efforts on third grade because research from the Annie E. Casey foundation finds that third grade reading proficiency, poverty, and school dropout rates are all connected.

Retention policies vary per state; however, states have commonly used a one-time testing system as the evaluative tool in determining whether a child is prepared to advance to the subsequent grade. Arkansas already has laws that allow districts to provide remedial resources and/or retain students that aren’t reading proficiently starting in 3rd grade.

We want every student to thrive and have the skills needed to perform well in every subject level. However, merely forcing students to repeat a grade level does not guarantee preparedness long term.

Supporters of retention policies argue that retention in earlier years significantly improves skills during the repeated year for some students. However, research over time has found negative impacts of retention policies on schools and children. A recent Harvard study on the statistical significance and effectiveness of third grade retention policy in Florida found no significant evidence that student outcomes improved long term.  Additionally, the study found no statistical evidence of retention’s impact on students needing remedial courses in later grades.

In addition to the lack of strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of retention, retention creates a cost burden for school districts. The annual cost of educating students averages $10,000 per year and doubles that for children with special needs. Retention would only raise that cost and force schools to make tough fiscal decisions. Coupling retention with improving students’ literary skills requires additional, extensive resources outside of that annual cost per student.

Oklahoma recently implemented third grade retention policies and had to immediately modify them. That state found an alarming number of third graders failing the exam. Because of this, Oklahoma offers four alternatives: the “good cause” and portfolio exemptions, summer reading programs and retesting, and a “probationary promotion” following a Student Reading Proficiency Team evaluation. Costs for reading programs vary from $500-$700 per pupil on the low end to $8,000 to $12,000 per pupil for the most intensive programs. Excluding the cost of retention, providing these additional resources could have added millions of dollars in cost for Oklahoma.

Retention should be a last resort mechanism, not a first response. Because evidence of the effectiveness of third grade retention is unclear, Arkansas should invest its time and resources into practices that prevent the need for retention: quality pre-k education and intervention-based programs that target student’s literacy needs.