University of Rochester

Making Pupils Repeat a Grade Slows Them Down in Math, Study Finds

March 7, 1995

When teachers hold back children weak in math skills instead of promoting them to the next grade, they're doing such youngsters no favor, a new University of Rochester study suggests.

Students who started out with lower-than-average math skills in first grade, but were promoted each year anyway, were doing better in math as fifth graders than comparison groups who had been held back a grade to allow them to "catch up," the analysis by Professor Julia Smith of the University's Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development shows. Smith will present her findings before educators later this year.

"The rationale for holding children back a grade is to improve their academic progress by allowing them more time to develop their skill. But we found that retention slows down the child's growth in learning," said Smith. "Retained students not only never catch up, they actually fall father and farther behind."

Smith's analysis tracked the performance of 400 children who had been below average in math as first graders, but who never repeated a grade, with groups of 400 students who had repeated first grade, 400 who had repeated second, 400 who had repeated third, and 400 who had repeated fourth grade. [Because some students were retained more than once, her final sample of retained students was 1,777.] She selected her study subjects from 25,000 students attending Chicago public schools from 1984 to 1988. Each comparison group was selected by random sample. Using a sophisticated analytical tool called Hierarchical Linear Modeling, Smith measured the speed of each group of students' mathematical learning over the five year span, as shown by test scores.

Not only did the repeaters never catch up to the students who had never been held back, Smith's analysis showed, but making students repeat earlier grades had worse effects upon their long- term performance. Repeating first or second grade did more damage to long-term learning than repeating third or fourth grade, her results showed.

"Studies about holding students back usually look at the consequences for students' reading ability," said Smith. "That's not surprising, since the decision to hold back a student is nearly always made because of weak reading skills, not weak math skills. But educators should be aware that retention also seems to have detrimental effect on the speed with which children learn new material in math. Holding them back slows them down."