On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary Grades

On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary Grades

On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary Grades

On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary Grades

Synopsis

This study is about the practice of grade retention in elementary schools; a particularly vexing problem in urban school systems. The book describes the school context of retention and evaluates its consequences by tracking the experiences of a large, representative sample of Baltimore school children from first grade through high school. It addresses the complex question of whether repeating a grade is helpful or harmful when children are not keeping up with their coursework.

Excerpt

On The Success of Failure, published in 1994, evaluated academic and socioemotional sequelae of early grade retention from the vantage point of our long-term research project, the Beginning School Study (BSS). Baltimore-based and still ongoing, the BSS in fall 1982 began monitoring the educational progress of a panel of city schoolchildren just as they were starting first grade. The study group was mainly low-income (twothirds) and just over half African-American (55% – all but a few of the rest were White). Over the elementary years many were held back – 40% through fifth grade. Success sought to determine how the decision to have these children repeat a grade affected them. Was it helpful, as intended, or harmful, as critics of the practice contend? The question has great practical import, especially for children like the BSS participants – disadvantaged, minority youth who often struggle at school.

Success covered the first 8 years of the group's schooling. It reviewed not just grade retention but also the ways other forms of educational tracking (e.g., special education and ability grouping) shape school experiences. Using multiple approaches, including matched controls, statistical adjustments, and before-after comparisons, the book was as comprehensive as possible at the time.

There is now much to add, but relatively little to change. We have continued to monitor the panel's life progress over the years since Success's publication, so that now we are able to examine high school dropout in relation to grade retention. High school dropout persists at epidemic levels in places like Baltimore – for example, 42% of the BSS panel left school without a degree, a figure in line with estimates for other highpoverty cities (Education Week 1998). We now can ask: to what extent . . .

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