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Dropout Rates in the United States: 1995

Grade Retention


Students judged by their teachers as not ready for grade promotion are often held back a year to master missed coursework or acquire developmentally appropriate social skills. While retention is intended to improve a student's chance for school success, some researchers have found that the stigma of failure associated with retention has a negative impact on students' self-esteem and subsequent academic achievement, thereby increasing their likelihood of dropping out of school.

Alternatively, there is also evidence that suggests that retention provides positive academic benefits to some students that presumably translates into a decreased likelihood of dropping out. A recent study has provided evidence that retention can help elementary school-age children perform better in classes, while improving their attitudes about themselves and school. It is not clear from these findings whether grade retention increases the likelihood of dropping out, or whether grade retention is an early indicator of learning problems that, if not corrected, could eventually lead a student to drop out. The first set of findings suggests a negative impact for grade retention; the second set suggests a more positive outcome.

While not being able to disentangle the causal effects of retention on dropout rates, 1992 and 1995 CPS data provide the opportunity to examine, on a national scale, the proportion of young adults who were retained in school. They also allow for the examination of the association between grade retention and dropping out.

Table 24Rate of retention, ages 1624, by background characteristics: October 1992 and October 1995

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                      1992/1                                    1995
                          ------------------------------------- -------------------------------------  
                                     Grade of last retention/2             Grade of last retention/2
                            Percent ---------------------------   Percent --------------------------- 
Characteristics            retained     K-3      4-8     9-12    retained     K-3      4-8     9-12
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Total/2                      11.1       4.1      2.7      2.2       13.3      6.1      3.3      2.4
Sex
  Male                       14.2       5.1      3.3      2.7       16.9      7.3      4.2      3.2
  Female                      8.1       3.0      2.1      1.7        9.6      4.9      2.4      1.6
Race-ethnicity
  White, non-Hispanic        10.2       4.1      2.3      1.7       12.1      6.2      2.9      2.0
  Black, non-Hispanic        17.4       5.2      5.0      3.8       18.7      7.0      5.0      3.7
  Hispanic                   10.4       3.1      2.5      2.8       14.7      5.7      3.8      3.0
Region
  Northeast                  10.6       4.0      2.6      1.6       12.7      5.9      2.7      2.8
  Midwest                     9.1       3.6      2.0      1.6       10.9      5.5      2.3      2.1
  South                      14.3       4.8      3.9      3.2       16.9      6.8      5.3      3.3
  West                        8.6       3.5      1.5      1.7       10.3      6.0      1.5      1.1
Income/3
  Low                        15.8       4.6      4.7      3.6       18.2      7.2      5.0      4.0
  Middle                     11.0       4.2      2.7      2.0       13.1      6.2      3.2      2.3
  High                        7.7       3.2      1.2      1.4        9.1      5.0      1.8      1.2
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1/ Missing data for 1992 have been imputed for this analysis and the estimates of retention rates
may therefore differ from those previously published.
2/ Does not include 682 respondents (20 percent) in 1992 and 464 respondents (11 percent) in 1995
with missing data on grade of last retention who are included in the total.
3/ Low income is defined as the bottom 20 percent of all family incomes for 1991 and 1994; middle
income is between 20 and 80 percent of all family incomes; and high income is the top 20 percent of
all family incomes.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, October
1992 and 1995, unpublished data.

Retention Rates Over Time

Although the long term impact of grade retention is still unclear, the number of young adults who had ever been retained increased from 11.1 percent in 1992 to 13.3 percent in 1995 (table 24). Nearly all of this increase occurred in the early elementary grades (K-3). Although retention rates increased for both males and females, males were nearly two-thirds times more likely to be retained than females in 1995.

Consistent with earlier findings, black students were more likely to be retained than students from other race-ethnicity groups. Black, white, and Hispanic students were more likely to be retained in the early elementary grades (K-3) than secondary grades (9-12). While retention rates increased for nearly all regions and income groups between 1992 and 1995, the distribution remained relatively unchanged. Young adults living in the South and from families with the lowest incomes were at the greatest risk of retention in both years.

While the observed rates for whites and Hispanics are very similar (10.2 and 10.4 percent respectively), the observed difference between blacks and Hispanics is not statistically significant. This lack of statistical significance is related to smaller sample sizes and resulting larger standard errors.

Status Dropout Rates

The 1995 CPS data confirm earlier findings that students who are retained are at higher risk of dropping out of school. Of the 13.3 percent of 16- through 24-year-olds who repeated one or more grades by 1995, approximately one-quarter had dropped out by 1995, compared to only about 10 percent of the young adults who were never held back in school (24.1 percent versus 10.1 percent) (table 25).

Table 25-Rate, number, and distribution of status dropouts, ages 16-24, by repetition of grade(s): October 1995

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                 Number of
                    Status         status                          Percent      Percent
                    dropout       dropouts         Population       of all         of
Characteristics      rate      (in thousands)    (in thousands)    dropouts    population
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Total                12.0             3,876            32,379       100.0         100.0
Grade repetition
  Ever retained      24.1             1,034             4,290        26.7          13.3
  Never retained     10.1             2,842            28,088        73.3          86.7
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
NOTE: Because of rounding, details may not add to totals.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey,
October 1995, unpublished data.

Background Characteristics

The differences in retention rates between male and female students and between students from the identified race-ethnicity groups are not repeated in the status dropout rates of each of these groups. For example, although males were more likely to have been retained, the dropout rate for male students who were retained is lower than the dropout rate for female students who were retained. Although black students were more likely to be retained, the dropout rates for retained students were comparable for black, white, and Hispanic students (table 26).

This similarity in dropout rates among retained students from different race-ethnicity groups suggests that there may be a common set of characteristics or experiences that results in higher dropout rates for all retained students, regardless of race or ethnicity. In contrast, the race-ethnicity differences observed earlier in the aggregate status dropout rates are still evident in the dropout rates among those students who have not been retained.

At each income level, students who had been retained were more likely to drop out than their peers who were not retained, but the income differentials are evident regardless of whether students were ever retained. Young adults from families with low incomes were more likely to drop out than their peers from middle and upper income families, whether they had been retained or not.

Table 26-Rate and distribution of status dropouts, ages 16-24, by retention status, sex, race, region, and income: October 1995

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                  Ever retained                               Never retained			
                      -------------------------------------       --------------------------------------
                       Status        Percent	 Percent           Status       Percent       Percent	
                       dropout        of all       of              dropout       of all         of	
Characteristics	        rate	     dropouts	population          rate        dropouts     population	
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Total	                24.1 	      100.0       100.0             10.1         100.0         100.0 	
							
Sex							
  Male	                21.8 	       57.7 	   63.7             10.3          48.6          48.0        	
  Female                28.1           42.3 	   36.3             10.0          51.4          52.0 	
							
Race-ethnicity							
  White, non-Hispanic	23.9           61.6        62.3              6.5          44.0          68.8 	
  Black, non-Hispanic	23.8 	       20.3        20.6              9.4          12.7          13.7 	
  Hispanic              25.9 	       16.5        15.3             30.7          41.3          13.6 	
							
Region							
  Northeast             20.8 	       15.2        17.6              6.6          12.0          18.4 	
  Midwest               25.0 	       20.3        19.6              6.9          16.6          24.4 	
  South	                26.6 	       50.5        45.7             11.7          39.9          34.4 	
  West	                29.7 	       13.9        17.0             14.0          31.5          22.7 	
							
Income*							
  Low	                36.8           43.4 	   28.5             20.1          39.0          19.6 	
  Middle                22.2 	       51.6 	   56.1              9.9          55.4          56.8 	
  High	                 7.7 	        5.0 	   15.5              2.4           5.6          23.6 	
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------							
*/ Low income is defined as the bottom 20 percent of all family incomes for 1994; middle income is between
20 and 80 percent of all family incomes; and high income is the top 20 percent of all family incomes.							
							
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, October 1995,
unpublished data.							

Timing of Retention

Retention in the early grades may reflect a lack of school readiness or signal a more serious problem with a student's learning ability. As shown in earlier research, 1995 CPS data confirm that youths whose last grade retention occurred in their early elementary grades are less at risk of dropping out than those retained in the later grades (table 27). Lower dropout rates among those held back in elementary school may reflect the positive effect of additional time for mastery of fundamental academic and age appropriate social skills, or possibly the benefit from special services targeted for students perceived to be at risk of school failure. However, youths that were retained in the early grades are more likely to drop out than their peers who were never retained.

Table 27-Rate of status dropouts, ages 16-24, by retention status, sex, race, region, and income: October 1995

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                                                          Grade of last retention/1
                                      Never              ---------------------------
Characteristics             Total   retained   Retained    K  3    4  8   9  12
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Total                       12.0      10.1       24.1      19.9     28.0     30.1
Sex
  Male                      12.2      10.3       21.8      18.4     24.6     27.0
  Female                    11.7      10.0       28.1      22.2     34.1     36.2
Race-ethnicity
  White, non-Hispanic        8.6       6.5       23.9      19.6     29.6     30.3
  Black, non-Hispanic       12.1       9.4       23.8      17.6     31.4     29.1
  Hispanic                  30.0      30.7       25.9      25.0     17.0     34.8
Region
  Northeast                  8.4       6.6       20.8      17.0     21.2     24.6
  Midwest                    8.9       6.9       25.0      22.3     29.5     26.8
  South                     14.2      11.7       26.6      21.2     29.1     35.4
  West                      14.6      14.0       19.7      17.5     29.5     22.8
Income/2
  Low                       23.2      20.1       36.8      36.8     43.8     32.7
  Middle                    11.5       9.9       22.2      17.3     23.8     32.0
  High                       2.9       2.4        7.7       5.8      6.6     12.8
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------    
1/ Does not include 464 respondents missing data on grade of last retention who are
included in the total.
2/ Low income is defined as the bottom 20 percent of all family incomes for 1994;
middle income is between 20 and 80 percent of all family incomes; and high income is
the top 20 percent of all family incomes.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Current Population
Survey, October 1995, unpublished data.
Students whose last school retention occurred in the middle (4-8) or secondary (9-12) grades were more likely to drop out than those retained in the early elementary grades. Higher dropouts rates among students retained later in their school careers may be due to a number of factors, including problems in progressing from one grade level to the next, unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their school experience, the decision to avoid the stigma associated with being held back in school, the decision to start a family, or the decision to seek employment. A small proportion of students retained last in the upper grades were also retained at an earlier grade and these repeated retentions may further their risk of dropping out. There is some evidence from the NELS: 88 and the earlier HS&B study that a number of these factors contribute to the decision to drop out of school. Further analysis of the reasons cited for dropping out by retainees in NELS:88 could shed further light on these issues.

A relatively small number of young adults-1.2 percent of the total population-were held back for two or more years of school (table 28). These individuals were nearly four times as likely to be status dropouts as those who had never been retained (39.3 percent versus 10.1 percent), and nearly twice as likely to drop out as individuals retained for one year (39.3 percent versus 22.4 percent) (table 28).

Table 28-Rate and distribution of status dropouts, ages 16-24, by characteristics
of retention: October 1995

-------------------------------------------------------------
                                      Percent      Percent
                            Status     of all         of
Characteristics              rate     dropouts    population
-------------------------------------------------------------
Total                        12.0      100.0        100.0
Number of retentions*
  Never                      10.1       73.3         86.7
  One grade                  22.4       19.8         10.6
  Two or more grades         39.3        4.1          1.2
-------------------------------------------------------------    
*/ Does not include 460 respondents with missing data on grade
of last retention who are included in the total.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the
Census, Current Population Survey, October 1995, unpublished
data.

Summary

While the impact of retention on subsequent school success is still the subject of some debate, school retention rates continue to rise, with the largest share of retentions taking place in the early elementary grades. The 1995 CPS data confirm that students who are retained in school are generally at higher risk of school dropout: 24.1 percent of retained youths aged 16-24 years of age were status dropouts in 1995 compared to 10.1 percent of young adults who were never held back in school. Although black students were slightly more likely to be retained, dropout rates for retained students were comparable for black, white, and Hispanic students.

It appears that the timing of retention is closely linked to students' subsequent dropout decisions. Youths whose last retention occurred in the early elementary grades were at less risk of dropping out than those retained in later years. This may reflect the positive effect that retention has in providing additional learning time for youths, or may capture the effects of special services targeted to at-risk students. Moreover, since the stigma of retention may be greater in the middle and secondary years, older youths faced with retention may be more likely to choose to leave school to consider different life options.


Footnotes:

42/  For an excellent summary of the literature on the affect of retention on youth, see V. Dill. 1993. Closing the Gap: Acceleration vs. Remediation and the Impact of Retention in Grade on Student Achievement. Austin: Texas Education Agency; or R. Sheehan. 1993. "Retaining Children in Grade." Childhood Education, Fall, 38-43. Also see M. McMillen, P. Kaufman, E. Hausken and D. Bradby, Dropout Rates in the United States: 1992, U.S. Department of Education, . NCES 93-464.

43/  K. Alexander, D. Entwisle and S. Dauber. 1994. On the Success of Failure. New York: Cambridge University Press.

44/  One of the landmark studies on retention's effects was released in 1989 by L. Shepard and M. Smith, (Eds.) Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention. London: The Falmer Press. For more recent work on specific effects, see for example: A. Thomas, Early Retention: Are there Long-Term Beneficial Effects? Psychology in the Schools 29, October 1992; C. Kaczala. April 1991. Grade Retention: A Longitudinal Study of School Correlates of Rates of Retention. Ohio: Cleveland Public Schools; W. Hamburg and G. Males, A Follow-up Study of High School Students with a History of Grade Retention. Psychology in the Schools, 28 1991.

45/  See M. McMillen and P. Kaufman, Dropout Rates in the United States: 1993, U.S. Department of Education, . NCES 90-659.


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