A 14-year study conducted by the Texas A&M University College of Education and Human Development has determined that Texas students who are held back during elementary school are almost three times more likely than their peers to drop out of high school.
The study of 784 Texas school children followed from first grade until graduating or dropping out of school led by Dr. Jan N. Hughes, Professor Emeritus in educational psychology, found that even though grade retention in the elementary grades does not harm students in terms of their academic achievement or educational motivation at the transition to high school, it increases the odds that they will drop out of school before obtaining a high school diploma by 2.67 times.
According to Hughes, the per-student educational expenditure for public schools in Texas in the 2016-17 school year was $10,360 and more than 37,000 students attending public schools were retained. The cost of the extra year of school during the repeat year is more than $384 million.
Identifying intervention points
This research suggests that the transition to high school is a point of increased risk for dropping out, especially for previously retained students because previously retained students are old for their grade. Typically, retained students turn 16 during or prior to the summer after ninth grade, whereas their peers are just turning 15. In Texas, under certain conditions, students can legally leave school to work full time or to pursue a GED. With at least four years before graduation, and no guarantee of graduation, many retained students leave school to pursue these options.
“It’s important for Texas to pursue alternatives to grade retention in the early grades,” Hughes said. “Looking at ninth grade, it’s important for students who are at risk of being retained due to their grades and low motivation to have personalized learning interventions.”
Key elements in successful school reform efforts include more personalized, smaller learning communities for ninth-graders, enhanced academic supports for failing students, curricula specifically designed to help students catch up on credits and professional development for teachers.
Another point of concern for Hughes is Texas’ methods of assigning reasons for leaving school, such as the private or home schooling exemption to the state’s compulsory education law. For example, of the 51 students in Hughes’s study who dropped out of school prior to age 17, 12 left school under one of these exemptions did not return to an accredited school or receive a GED in the following two years.
These students are not counted as dropouts in the state evaluation system.
Pressure on public schools
While most schools offer a variety of alternatives for students to catch up on their credits or attend special campuses that offer a more individualized learning experience, not all students take advantage of those options.
“Pressures on public schools in Texas to report low dropout rates may serve as a disincentive for schools to encourage low-performing students to select these programs over home or private schooling. Students choosing home or private school do not count as ‘failures’ in the state evaluation of the schools,” Hughes said.
Hughes’s study has resulted in 53 scientific papers published in top-tier journals that identify how school experiences impact educational attainment. The data from this study are available to other researchers on the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website.
“Researchers I don’t know will be analyzing the data from this 14-year study because the dataset is unique and provides an opportunity for researchers to ask new and important questions about children’s development,” Hughes said. “I’m hopeful that other researchers will be able to identify some of the intermediate processes that explain why early grade retention impacts high school graduation.”