Getting Ahead by Staying Behind: An Evaluation of Florida's Program to End Social Promotion

Liam Julian

Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
Education Next
Spring 2006

Education dogma, and innumerable studies published in education journals, has long pegged school retention (holding back students who have not demonstrated understanding of grade-level academic material) as bad policy. This report posits that the dogma may be wrong. In 2002, Florida began requiring third graders to score at the Level-2 Benchmark (the equivalent of NCLB "Basic") on its state assessment test in order to be promoted to fourth grade. Thus, the report's authors were able to compare low-scoring third graders in 2002, who were subject to the new retention law, with low-scoring third graders the year before the law was enacted. They found that on subsequent tests, students identified for retention (whether or not they were actually retained or qualified for an exemption) fared better than youngsters for whom retention was neither a legal requirement nor a visceral threat. Students who were held back experienced the largest relative improvements. So, why have past studies linked student retention with negative consequences? Perhaps because those analyses typically evaluated subjective retention - wherein individual teachers decide about a particular student's readiness to advance - instead of objective policies, such as Florida's, which rely on test scores. Subjective policies consider intangible factors and give "no way to isolate the effect of being held back, much less to make reasonable conclusions about the effects of retention on a student's academic achievement or the probability of his dropping out." This Florida study provides useful information, but it certainly is not an exhaustive evaluation of the Sunshine State's program. The authors write: "The policy's greatest benefits could result not from retention itself, but rather from increased efforts on the part of teachers and even students to avoid being retained in the first place." You can find the report, here.

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