Primum non nocere is a Latin phrase most commonly associated with the medical profession.  The phrase translates to “first, do no harm”.  Ohio’s legislators would do well to adopt this concept when considering the laws about education.

As we first wrote yesterday, research studies show that the mandatory retention component of Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law will do irreparable harm to thousands of children by increasing the likelihood that they will drop out of school later on.  Since this evidence contradicts the intended outcome of the law, we must push the Ohio General Assembly to immediately amend the law to remove the mandated retention component.

If you have not read yesterday’s post on this topic, I recommend you do so before proceeding.  You can find it here: Research Shows Ohio’s Third Grade Retention Law Will Increase Dropout Rates

In that post, I shared updated details from the authors of the original study that the Kasich Administration used to justify the creation of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.  In that updated study, the authors provided recommendations for improving reading proficiency in young children, but they recommended against using mandatory retention as a method of intervention.  I also provided some additional research that discussed the negative impact of retention on future dropout rates.  Today, I’ll share additional research studies that confirm that the retention of students results in more damaging outcomes than the practice of social promotion with continued academic intervention.

Two prominent researchers in this area are Robert Hauser from the University of Wisconsin and Shane Jimerson from the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Both have been researching and writing about the connection between retention and dropping out for over a decade and have continually come to the conclusion that retention, especially as is connected to a single test of proficiency, results in negative effects for the child and increases the likelihood of the child dropping out of high school, among other things.

In Hauser’s paper, Should We End Social Promotion?: Truth and Consequences, he reports several key findings that should inform Ohio’s legislation on this topic:

  • The academic benefits of retention typically are both temporary and costly. When previous academic performance and relevant social characteristics are controlled, past grade retention accelerates current school dropout.
  • The available evidence shows that retention has no lasting educational benefits, that it typically leads to lower achievement (than promotion) and to higher rates of school dropout.
  • The current enthusiasm for the use of achievement tests to end social promotion raises three concerns. First, much of the public discussion and some recently implemented or proposed testing programs appear to ignore existing standards for appropriate test use. Second, there is persuasive research evidence that grade retention typically has no beneficial academic or social effects on students.  Third, public discussion of social promotion has made little reference to current retention practice.

That last bullet is packed full of information that Hauser and others expand on.  First, the use of the OAA (standardized test) to determine reading proficiency ignores standards for appropriate test use.  Hauser then reiterates the point that retention does not provide benefits for the student.  Last, the discussions surrounding retention vs. social promotion don’t include existing research about the two practices — that’s what we’re trying to do through these posts.  When the Kasich Administration created this legislation, they did not cite research to justify the inclusion of retention as a method of intervention — it was adopted as a political talking point that appeals to many in the public — as all of these research reports point out — but has no real basis in fact.

Hauser reports other specific findings on the connections between retention and dropping out:

  • The negative effects of grade retention on school dropout are even stronger and more consistent than its effects on academic achievement.
  • Grissom and Shepard reported that retention accelerated school dropout; Temple, Reynolds, and Miedel found that retention during kindergarten through the eighth grade increased dropout by 12 percentage points.

Finally, Hauser describes alternative intervention options that are unsurprisingly similar to those from our previous reports and are other aspects of Ohio’s law:

  • Intervention strategies appear to be particularly crucial from kindergarten through grade 2. Some of the intensive strategies being used at this level include preschool expansion, giving children who are seriously behind their age-level peers opportunities to accelerate their instruction, and putting children in smaller classes with expert teachers.  Such strategies are being implemented in school districts across the country.  These alternatives to social promotion and simple retention in grade should be tried and evaluated.

Do no harm

As these studies continually recommend other intervention strategies other than retention and, furthermore, link retention to negative long-term results, shouldn’t we remove the mandatory retention component of our law to avoid doing more harm to an already fragile population of learners?

Shane Jimerson, Ph.D., is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist who has researched the impact of student retention extensively and has produced volumes on the topic — way more than what I’ll recap here — but I will provide some highlights of his reports.

From Winning the Battle and Losing The War: Examining the Relation Between Grade Retention and Dropping out of High School:

  • All reviewed studies including grade retention as a potential predictor of dropping out yielded results demonstrating an association between these two variables. In addition, several studies reported that grade retention was found to be the strongest predictor of later dropout status.
  • The results of this review of research addressing the association between grade retention and dropout status clearly demonstrate that early grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of later school withdrawal. As discussed in other research, the short-term benefits of grade retention may dissipate and culminate in later school withdrawal.  Mann (1987) reports that students who are retained in one grade are 40% to 50% more likely to drop out than promoted students.
  • Attention must be directed toward alternative remedial strategies. Researchers, educators, administrators, and legislators should commit to implement and investigate specific remedial intervention strategies designed to facilitate socioemotional adjustment and educational achievement of our nation’s youth.
  • Considering the results of this review of research examining the association between grade retention and high school dropout and other reviews of research addressing the efficacy of grade retention, we must move beyond the use of grade retention as an intervention strategy and attempt to implement those strategies research has demonstrated to be effective. Educational professionals, researchers, parents, and policymakers would be remiss to overlook the implications of research that demonstrate the association between grade retention and school dropout.

From On the Failure of Failure: Examining the Association Between Early Grade Retention and Education and Employment Outcomes During Late Adolescence

  • Retained students had lower levels of academic adjustment at the end of 11th grade, were more likely to drop out of high school by age 19, were less likely to receive a diploma by age 20, were less likely to be enrolled in a postsecondary education program, received lower education/employment status ratings, were paid less per hour, and received poorer employment competence ratings at age 20 in comparison to a group of low-achieving students.
  • Many children who are retained in elementary school join a cohort of younger children the following year and are considered to be “over-age for grade” the remainder of their education. Past research also suggests that there is an effect of being over-age for grade that influences students to drop out during adolescence (Roderick, 1995). Research also suggests that students who are over-age for grade exhibit more behavioral problems, report higher levels of emotional distress and more substance abuse, and engage in more reckless behaviors.  In sum, past research provides evidence that repeating a grade provides few remediational benefits and may, in the long run, place students at a higher risk of dropping out of school.

These findings are very similar to the previously discussed Annie E. Casey Foundation reports regarding children who are reading below grade level.  Mandatory retention of those students exacerbates the problem by piling on additional risk factors that do not exist when other intervention strategies are used instead.

Jimerson’s summary reinforces the idea of “first, do no harm” while repeating the need for other alternative intervention strategies that we have seen numerous times already.  As you’ll see, Jimerson also points out that while retention may be an option for some children, the research isn’t comprehensive enough to help us definitively identify those students.  Absent that knowledge, we should promote below-grade-level students while continuing to provide these other interventions.

The results of this study provide additional evidence illustrating poorer educational and employment outcomes through age 20 for retained students, relative to a group of low-achieving but promoted peers. Researchers, policy makers, administrators, education professionals, and school psychologists must be informed about research regarding early grade retention. Further evaluation of alternatives to early grade retention—including early reading programs, tutoring programs, parent involvement programs, summer school programs, and other remediation strategies to facilitate the educational success of children at risk of academic failure—are encouraged. Granted, retention may benefit some children, but until future research identifies these children and specifies the positive, long-term effects of this remediation strategy, alternative intervention strategies are recommended. In regards to the conundrum presented at the outset, the cumulative results of research to date appear to suggest “not to retain.”

The National Association of School Psychologists succinctly summarizes the findings in a research brief on grade retention that further reiterates the findings from these studies.  Note that the second bullet-point once again takes us back to the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports regarding the risk factors for children that need to be addressed to truly prevent this problem in the first place:

Why Retention Is a Failed Intervention
There are several explanations for the negative effects associated with grade retention, including:
• absence of specific remedial strategies to enhance social or cognitive competence
failure to address the risk factors associated with retention (short-term gains following retention mask long-term problems associated with ineffective instruction)
• retained children are subsequently overage for grade, which is associated with deleterious outcomes, particularly as retained children approach middle school and puberty (stigmatization by peers and other negative experiences of grade retention may exacerbate behavioral and socioemotional adjustment problems)

And finally, the National Dropout Prevention Center based out of Clemson University partnered with Communities In Schools, touted as the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, to publish a report titled Dropout Risk Factors and Exemplary ProgramsThis comprehensive technical report looks at the highest risk factors for dropping out of school.  As with the other studies, there are key factors of elementary aged children that are identified as having a significant impact on leading them to drop out of school.  These factors again hark back to the four recommendations of the Annie E. Casey Foundation: low achievement, grade retention, low socioeconomic status, poor attendance, school misbehavior (note that this is shown to be exacerbated by being retained and over-age for the grade), family disruption/stressors.

The authors of this report explain that while a single risk factor is a threat to school completion, having multiple risk factors (e.g., being over-age/retained combined with poverty or low achievement) greatly increase the risk.  Therefore, any efforts that can be made to reduce risk factors can serve to also reduce the risk of dropping out.  Combining two major factors shows up as being extremely damaging to the prospects of a child completing their education, and low achievement and retention are the two most significant school factors found in this study.

Two school performance factors were found in a majority of the data sources to be linked to dropping out of school. One of these factors—low achievement—was found to be a major predictor in all 12 data sources. The impact of low achievement was found to start early and to continue throughout a student’s school career.

As was found for low achievement, retention/overage for grade, the other school performance factor, was found to be linked to dropout from 1st grade up through high school. Although correlated to achievement, retention had an impact on dropping out independent of academic performance, other school experiences, and personal characteristics. Something about the experience of being retained and being older than grade-level peers increases the likelihood of dropping out.

This report offers a list of recommendations to its partnering programs, with the top recommendation being most relevant to our law here in Ohio:

Encourage affiliates to address multiple risk factors where possible. Research was clear that the
risk for dropping out increases with multiple risk factors that may snowball in effect over time. Programs should take this into account and target as many as possible.

We can correct this here in Ohio by removing the mandatory retention component of the state law which would completely eradicate on of the most significant risk factors of high school dropouts.  By removing the retention requirement while continuing to focus on the other intervention requirements, Ohio will have a law that will better serve our students and that research studies show will decrease the likelihood that our struggling young students will dropout of high school.

Isn’t that what this law was intended to do?

Primum non nocere.  

Do no harm.

Take action on this now.  We need to contact our legislators and bring them up to speed on this research to avoid exposing thousands of third graders to an even greater risk of dropping out.  We need to urge them, starting with Senator Peggy Lehner, Senate Education Committee Chair, to pass emergency legislation to remove the mandatory retention component of Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law so that this year’s third graders avoid the punitive penalty and the negative ramifications that research has shown will occur.  Senator Lehner has led changes to the original law and it’s not unreasonable to believe that she could lead others given new information about the contradictory effect the law will actually have on Ohio’s students.

Share this information with Senator Lehner through her contact website.  You can also follow up with Senator Lehner by calling her at (614) 466-4538.

You can find the other members of the Senate Education Committee here.