Being held back helps initially, study shows

November 27, 1994|By Mike Bowler

A pair of sociologists at Johns Hopkins University are marching to a different tune in the debate over retention in school.

Karl L. Alexander and Doris R. Entwisle have read the large body of research showing that having a student repeat a grade has no value -- or is harmful. But their conclusion, based on a 12-year study of students in Baltimore City, is that retention rarely harms children and often helps.

But not for long.

In 1982, Drs. Alexander and Entwisle began a long-range study of 790 first-graders chosen at random from 20 city schools. The "Beginning School Study," now in its 13th year, has featured interviews with the students as they've advanced through school and their parents.

Many were held back -- 16 percent in the first year, 40 percent at some point in the first five years. The Hopkins researchers found that among the primary-school students, school marks of retained students went up, and attitudes improved, too.

But the down side, Dr. Alexander said, is that after a couple of years, the performance of the retained pupils "began to trail off again," and soon they were in the same jam -- way behind their peers -- as when they were retained.

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