“Nearly 3,000 of South Carolina’s third-graders who struggle with reading could be held back if the state adopts a plan that would require students to read at or near grade level,” Jamie Self reports in The State (“Education leaders: Florida holds key to SC literacy fix,” March 31, 2013), adding later,
Under Peeler’s bill, 2,886 SC third-graders scored low enough on a 2012 reading test to be held back a year — more than four times the 584 third-graders held back in 2012. The number reflects only the lowest-scoring readers, about 27 percent of the more than 10,500 third-graders who scored as not reading on grade level….
SC schools chief Mick Zais supports the plan to hold back struggling third-graders and would like to see a similar track for seventh graders, his spokesman Jay Ragley said.
SC Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, has introduced the bill modeled on Just Read, Florida, part of a grade-retention policy widely promoted by Jeb Bush as one aspect of the larger so-called “Florida Miracle.”
SC political leadership must not follow Florida’s lead in reading policy or grade retention policy for several reasons, including the following: the “Florida Miracle” has been thoroughly discredited, grade retention has no support in the research that shows retention has no positive outcomes but many negative consequences for children and tax payers, and initiatives such as Just Read, Florida ignore and replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as SC.
First, SC political leadership and the public must acknowledge what low reading test scores represent and the negative consequences of basing policy on test data:
- All standardized test scores, including reading scores, are overwhelmingly a reflection of home, community, and school inequities more so than direct and clear evidence of holistic reading ability by children. Low reading scores by third graders in SC are signals of a high-poverty state, first and foremost.
- Reading test scores are often poor evidence of real-world and holistic reading ability. Standardized tests of reading are typically skills-based and/or complicated by other student skills imbedded in the test format (for example, having students write on a reading test blurs the evidence on reading and writing proficiencies).
- High-stakes test-based decisions for grade retention, instructional programs, and instructional practices—especially in literacy—have a clear negative impact on the quality of instruction as well as the quality of learning opportunities children who need education the most are likely to receive:
In too many places, however, graduation and promotion tests are putting many students at sharply increased risk of suffering the serious, well-documented harm associated with grade retention and denial of high school diplomas. Those at greatest risk include the very populations—students of color, students with disabilities, English-language learners, and low-income students—whom standards-based reform could potentially help the most. (Heubert, 2002/2003)
Second, SC political leadership and the public must acknowledge that the “Florida Miracle”—like the “Texas Miracle,” the “Harlem Miracle,” and the “Chicago Miracle”—has been thoroughly discredited as incomplete data, misrepresented accomplishments, or outright failures.
A brief review of credible examinations of the “Florida formula” include strong cautions about both the claims of success and the use of Florida as a model of reform.
Matthew Di Carlo acknowledges mixed results, but cautions using the formula to drive policy:
That said, the available evidence on these policies, at least those for which some solid evidence exists, might be summarized as mixed but leaning toward modestly positive, with important (albeit common) caveats. A few of the reforms may have generated moderate but meaningful increases in test-based performance (with all the limitations that this implies) among the students and schools they affected. In a couple of other cases, there seems to have been little discernible impact on testing outcomes (and/or there is not yet sufficient basis to draw even highly tentative conclusions). It’s a good bet – or at least wishful thinking – that most of the evidence is still to come.
In the meantime, regardless of one’s opinion on whether the “Florida formula” is a success and/or should be exported to other states, the assertion that the reforms are responsible for the state’s increases in NAEP scores and FCAT proficiency rates during the late 1990s and 2000s not only violates basic principles of policy analysis, but it is also, at best, implausible. The reforms’ estimated effects, if any, tend to be quite small, and most of them are, by design, targeted at subgroups (e.g., the “lowest-performing” students and schools). Thus, even large impacts are no guarantee to show up at the aggregate statewide level (see the papers and reviews in the first footnote for more discussion)….
Whether we like it or not, real improvements at aggregate levels are almost always slow and incremental. There are no “miracles,” in Florida or anywhere else. The sooner we realize that, and start choosing and judging policies based on attainable expectations that accept the reality of the long haul, the better.
Julian Vasquez Heilig identifies the error of focusing on apparent increases in 3rd to 4th grade reading scores and associating them with policy:
Cloaking Inequity examined the purported test score miracle earlier here. In 4th grade, Florida improved over the last decade and was position in the top ten nationally, but as you move up the grade levels, the longer student stay in Florida schools, the worse their performance relative to the nation. I also discussed the official Florida scholarship evaluation in Florida that showed their scholarship (aka neovoucher) program had not increased the achievement of program participants.
Third, all evidence on grade retention reveals only negative consequences for children (academic and emotional) and tax payers, the public. 
Alfie Kohn notes that accountability “get tough” attitudes are masking the need for policy to be built on evidence:
The same get-tough sensibility that has loosed an avalanche of testing has led to a self-congratulatory war on “social promotion” that consists of forcing students to repeat a grade. The preponderance of evidence indicates that this is just about the worst course of action to take with struggling children in terms of both its academic and social-psychological effects. And the evidence uniformly demonstrates that retention increases the chance that a student will leave school; in fact, it’s an even stronger predictor of dropping out than is socioeconomic status.
Some of the well-documented effects of grade retention include the following:
Retained students are more likely to be male, younger than classmates, from a lower socio-economic class, black or Hispanic, a behavior problem and immature (Karweit, 1991).
Research shows a large correlation between dropouts and retention….
Controlled studies do not support the benefits claimed for extra-year programs (i.e., transitional first, pre-kindergarten) and negative side effects occur just as they do for retention in later grades….
Empirical research shows retention does not improve the achievement of children as measured by tests of basic skills. No significant positive long-term effect is evident. Studies indicate retention is either ineffective or harmful, with more negative than positive effects….
Retention imposes an economic burden of financing an extra year of schooling….
Children attach stigma, stress, and shame to retention.
Kevin Welner states directly and clearly that no policy decisions should include grade retention, specifically citing Florida’s policies:
Let’s use grade retention to illustrate. States across the U.S. are adopting mandates requiring that third graders with low reading scores repeat the grade. The ‘leave the student back’ policy is being heavily marketed by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization created by former Florida governor Jeb Bush. But retaining students is not a new idea. It’s an experiment that’s been tried on and off for generations, and it’s been studied for almost that long.
The overarching message from research in this area is that retaining a low-scoring third grader will not help her do better than a similar classmate with similar scores who is moved along to fourth grade, but she will be more likely to eventually drop out.
Viewed from a taxpayer perspective, retaining a student will likely have one of two outcomes:
1. She may drop out, meaning she will pay about $60,000 less in taxes over her lifetime, be more likely to commit crimes, and be more likely to depend on government assistance; or
2. She may complete high school, at a cost of an extra year of school – about $10,000. If retention had a substantial payoff, paying for an extra year of school would be worthwhile (although it nationally adds up to billions of dollars each year). But there’s no benefit. With grade retention, we are paying more and getting a worse outcome.
That’s the evidence. It’s what we have learned (or should have learned) from decades of experience. Grade retention can be expected to have the same destructive results in 2012 as it did when it was tried ten or twenty or forty years ago – or any of the years in between. Yet our lawmakers do the same thing over and over again, each time expecting different results.
Allensworth (2005) found that retention based on test scores at the elementary level contributed to higher drop-out rates; this study is particularly important to evaluating the long-term impact of the Florida formula as well as any state considering implementing similar policies that focus on short-term test scores while ignoring long-term consequences.
Grade retention fails students retained, fails taxpayers, and as Gottfried (2013) has shown, fails the non-retained classmates of students retained:
This research has brought to the foreground a new dimension of the analysis relating to grade retention, as well as peer effects. In essence, by demonstrating a pervasive negative effect of retained classmates, as derived from multiple quasi-experimental methods on a panel data set of urban schoolchildren, this study corroborates the predominant conclusions of prior research on retention. Namely, this practice of grade retention is associated with negative outcomes (Allen et al. 2009; Holmes 1989; McCoy and Reynolds 1999; Meisels and Liaw 1993; Reynolds 1992; Roderick and Nagaoka 2005). The unique contribution of this study is that the negative outcomes of this schooling practice are not restricted to the retained students themselves; rather, this study has found that retention can affect the academic outcomes for other members of the classroom. Moreover, this study has also facilitated an opportunity for urban educational experiences to be further delineated and for policy implications of this practice to be more thoroughly discussed.
Finally, SC political leadership needs to address in authentic and effective ways the very real literacy challenges faced by our high-poverty students. Modeling SC educational policy on Florida, however, would achieve only what Kohn has identified as policy insuring more non-readers.
Credible reading policy in SC would include the following:
- Create and implement social policy that addresses poverty and job creation/stability in the historically high-poverty areas of the state. Children living in high-poverty homes and communities are “doubly disadvantaged” in ways that cannot be overcome by schools alone and that are too often reflected in and perpetuated by community-based schools and failed educational policies such as Florida’s Just Read, Florida.
- Reading and literacy achievement should be evaluated through holistic, classroom-based mechanisms, not high-stakes testing. Increasing high-stakes test scores in reading may have the unintended consequence of producing both misleading data and further eroding the literacy proficiency of high-poverty, minority, special needs, and ELL students. Test-based evaluations of students, teachers, schools, and policy tend to create conditions that ask less of everyone, not more.
- Reading proficiency is of little value if students are non-readers due to punitive and skills-based school policy. Reading is a holistic and unpredictable human behavior that must be fostered over many years and through strategies that appear “too simple”—increase children’s access to books in their homes, increase children’s access to books in school, provide students extended opportunities to read by choice during the school day, address adult and community literacy
- Reading proficiency and creating life-long, eager readers will never be achieved by reading policies or programs, particularly pre-packaged commercial programs. Teachers and parents can and should foster reading and all literacy, but ultimately children cannot be bribed, forced, or punished into being readers.
As Welner concludes in his consideration of education reform:
To be clear, “social promotion” – the movement of students from grade to grade with no meaningful intervention for those who fall behind – is also not supported by research evidence. Instead, as proven approaches to address the problem of early reading gaps, research supports high-quality early-childhood education, intensive early reading interventions, and smaller class sizes in early grades for at-risk students. These are all less costly and more effective than grade retention.
Evidence supports grade promotion combined with these sorts of interventions, and it clearly cautions against a systemic use of grade retention, even retention combined with additional academic support.
A reckless disregard of evidence is harmful. It leads to the waste of precious resources: our tax dollars and our children themselves. And grade retention is only one example of the larger problem.
Review of Closing the Racial Achievement Gap, Madhabi Chatterji
Water into Wine?, Julian Vasquez Heilig
Lurking in the Bushes, Julian Vasquez Heilig
Parsing the Florida “Miracle,” Diane Ravitch
The Test-Based Evidence on the “Florida Formula,” Matthew Di Carlo
Review of Getting Farther Ahead by Staying Behind, Derek C. Briggs
Test-based accountability has become the new norm in public education over the last decade. In many states and school districts nation-wide, student performance in standardized tests plays an important role in high-stakes decisions such as grade retention. This study examines the effects of grade retention on student misbehavior in Florida, which requires students with reading skills below grade level to be retained in the 3rd grade. The regression discontinuity estimates suggest that grade retention increases the likelihood of disciplinary incidents and suspensions in the years that follow. The findings also suggest that these adverse effects are concentrated among economically disadvantaged students
Retaining Students in Grade A Literature Review of the Effects of Retention on Students’ Academic and Nonacademic Outcomes, Nailing Xia, Sheila Nataraj Kirby (2009)
Our review of these 91 studies indicates that grade retention is associated with gender, race, SES, age for grade, student mobility, family and parental characteristics, prior academic achievement, prior behavioral and socioemotional development, and student health. Converging evidence suggests that grade retention alone is not an effective intervention strategy for improving academic and longer-term life outcomes. In general, retention does not appear to benefit students academically. Although some studies have found academic improvement in the immediate years after retention, these gains are usually short-lived and tend to fade over time. Past research has consistently shown that retained students are at significantly increased risk of dropping out of school. Although only a few studies have examined the effects of retention on postsecondary outcomes, the available evidence suggests negative effects on enrollment in postsecondary education and on employment outcomes in adulthood. Overall, the literature indicates mixed findings on attitudinal, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomes among the retained students….Our review found fruitful avenues of research, most notably the impact of supportive interventions (such as early identification of at-risk students, academic instructional services provided in and out of school, and different types of intervention strategies) on proximal and future student outcomes.
The Spillover Effects of Grade-Retained Classmates: Evidence from Urban Elementary Schools, Michael A. Gottfired, American Journal of Education 119 (May 2013)
Retention, Social Promotion, and Academic Redshirting: What Do We Know and Need to Know?, Nancy Frey, Remedial and Special Education, volume 26, number 6, November/December 2005, pages 332-346
The evidence gathered in the last 30 years on the practice of retention suggests that it is academically ineffective and is potentially detrimental to children’s social and emotional health. The seeds of failure may be sown early for students who are retained, as they are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Furthermore, the trajectory of adverse outcomes appears to continue into young adulthood, when wages and postsecondary educational opportunities are depressed.
Dropout Rates after High-Stakes Testing in Elementary School: A Study of the Contradictory Effects of Chicago’s Efforts to End Social Promotion, Elaine M. Allensworth, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 341-364
Alternative to Grade Retention, Jimerson, Pletcher, and Kerr (2005)
Given the accumulating evidence that grade retention is an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention, it is imperative that school administrators advocate for “promotion plus” policies that depend on effective, evidence-based interventions. The issue for secondary school educators is twofold. Not only must educators determine whether retention is appropriate for a given student, they also need to address the negative academic, social, and emotional consequences for students who were retained in earlier grades. Very often the student’s original difficulties persist, or more likely worsen, as their school career progresses.
Winning the Battle and Losing the War, Jimerson, Anderson, and Whipple (Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 39(4), 2002)
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 (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001a, 2001b; Smith & Shepard, 1987, 1988), 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 (Jimerson, 2001a). 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. Furthermore, a new imperative has emerged, where the onus is on programs training future educational professionals to disseminate the results of the recent research presented in this review. It is crucial that we transcend limited solutions and begin to consider student developmental and achievement trajectories in order to reinforce and strengthen pathways that promote social and cognitive competence and lead to academic success.
Some stakeholders in Florida believe that the “hard line in the sand” created by mandatory, test-based retention created a motivational difference in teachers and parents…, since it is thought that many of the same learning supports were being provided to struggling students prior to the policy. This may be the case for test score gains close to the retention year, but given the well-known longer-term negative effect of retention on drop-out rates (e.g., Allensworth, 2005) as well as the assured delayed entry into the workforce, Florida’s evidence falls far short of even suggesting that retention is the only or best way to motivate a real positive difference for struggling students, nor has it contradicted the overwhelming evidence against retention prior and since.
What Doesn’t Work, Smith and Shepard (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1987)
Exploring the Association Between Grade Retention and Dropout, Jimerson, et al. (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 7, pp. 51-62, 2002)
Ultimately, the research is unequivocal in identifying that grade retention does not appear to address the needs of these students at risk of academic failure. Findings from this study should not be misinterpreted as an indication that retention was an effective intervention strategy for the retained students who did not drop out of high school. There is a need for further research comparing the retained students who completed high school with matched comparison groups of similarly low achieving but socially promoted students. This study highlights the association of early socio-emotional and behavioral adjustment and high school dropout among a group of retained students. These findings have direct implications for school psychologists and other educational professionals. In particular, rather than focusing on the unsupported academic intervention of grade retention, it is time to implement prevention and intervention programs that have been empirically demonstrated to meet the needs of these students in facilitating both positive academic success and socio-emotional adjustment.
Grade Retention: A Flawed Education Strategy, Xia and Glennia (part 1)
Decades of research suggest that grade retention does not work as a panacea for poor student performance. The majority of research fails to find compelling evidence that retention improves long-term student achievement. An overwhelmingly large body of studies have consistently demonstrated negative academic effects of retention. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have almost unanimously found that early retention during kindergarten to grade three is harmful, both academically and emotionally.  Many studies find that retention does not necessarily lead to increased work effort among students as predicted.
Cost-Benefit Analysis of Grade Retention, Xia and Glennia (part 2)
Grade Retention: The Gap Between Research and Practice, Xia and Glennia (part 3)
The majority of published studies and decades of research indicate that there is usually little to be gained, and much harm that may be done through retaining students in grade. Yet, many educators continue to use retention as a way to improve student achievement and claim that it produces positive results. The consequence is while a growing body of studies show that retention does not improve academic performance and has a number of negative side effects, more and more states and school districts have adopted retention policy in an effort to enhance the educational accountability.
Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention, Shepard and Smith (Educational Leadership, May 1990)
Grade Retention [a synthesis]
Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century, Shane R. Jimerson (School Psychology Review, 2001, Volume 30, No. 3, pp. 420-437)
A Synthesis of Grade Retention Research: Looking Backward and Moving Forward, Shane R. Jimerson (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 6, pp. 47-59, 2001)
In looking backwards at the retention research and previous reviews and meta-analyses, a consistent theme emerges—grade retention is not an empirically supported intervention. As reflected in the results of the three meta-analyses described above, the confluence of results from research during the past century fails to demonstrate achievement, socioemotional, or behavioral advantages of retaining students. Moreover, the research consistently demonstrates that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of high school.
Evaluating Kindergarten Retention Policy, Hong and Raudenbush (September 2006)
First, Do No Harm, Jay P. Heubert (Educational Leadership, December 2002/January 2003)
 See Krashen, S. (2013, May). Need Children Read ‘Proficiently’ by Grade Three? Language Magazine.
 Deborah A. Byrnes, and Kaoru Yamamoto, 1985, “Academic Retention of Elementary Pupils: An Inside Look,” Education, 106(2), 208-14; Peg Dawson, 1998, “A Primer on Student Grade Retention: What the Research Says,” NASP Communique, 26(8); Shane R. Jimerson et al., 1997, “A Prospective, Longitudinal Study of the Correlates and Consequences of Early Grade Retention,” Journal of School Psychology, 35(1), 3-25; Panayota Y. Mantzicopoulos, 1997, “Do Certain Groups of Children Profit from Early Retention? A Follow-Up Study of Kindergartners with Attention Problems,” Psychology in the Schools, 34(2), 115-27; Samuel J. Meisels and Fong-Ruey Liaw, 1993, “Failure in Grade: Do Retained Students Catch Up?” Journal of Educational Research, 87(2), 69-77; Judy Temple, Arthur Reynolds and Suh-Ruu Ou, 2001, “Grade Retention and School Dropout: Another Look at the Evidence,” The CEIC Review, 10(5), 5-6 & 21; Charles L. Thompson and Elizabeth K. Cunningham, 2000, “Retention and Social Promotion: Research and Implications for Policy,” Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education Digest, 161, 1-5; Deneen M. Walters and Sherry B. Borgers, 1995, “Student Retention: Is It Effective?” School Counselor, 42(4).