In Social Forces, Megan Andrew examines how being held back in grade school affects kids’ high-school completion, college entry, and college completion. Students can be held back for a variety of reasons, many of which are well intentioned. But as Andrew shows, such jarring incidents and processes can be “scarring,” leaving lasting impacts on young people’s lives, moreso depending on its timing.
Andrew uses two national, longitudinal studies in her work: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the National Educational Longitudinal Study 1988. Each consists of repeated surveys of thousands of students from grade-school into adult life. Even when she uses a method called “sibling fixed-effects” to control for family, birth-cohort, and demographic characteristics within families, retention still has clear consequences for high-school completion. Andrew finds that any grade-school retention greatly decreases a child’s odds of high school completion; however, the effect is dampened when the retention occurs earlier rather than later. That is, repeating the second grade isn’t as harmful as being held back in the eighth grade. Luckily, once Andrew controls for high school completion, the scarring effect seems to go down; if kids graduate high school, a past retention has less impact on their college entry and completion.
Drawing on sociological understandings of performance and self-esteem, Andrew theorizes that stigma and students’ doubts about their capabilities (raised by being held back) explain the scarring effects. So when educators and parents hope to better prepare students for transitions to junior high or high school with an extra year of grade school, the move can paradoxically lower a child’s chances of educational success. Now teachers and parents can better address children’s needs with the knowledge that, if it is necessary to hold a child back in school, it’s far better to do so earlier rather than later in the educational process.