Most experts seem to agree that retention alone can create difficulties for students, including a greater likelihood of dropping out of school. At the same time, some recent research has suggested that a carefully crafted retention policy, coupled with early interventions and supports for those who struggle, may help improve student achievement.
Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said it's vital to ask what happens to those students retained.
"Are they being put back into the exact same classroom with the same instruction that wasn't successful the first time?" she said.
All too often, she said, students don't get the extra help they need.
"They are maybe getting it louder and slower," she said.
The OCR's retention data show some sharp distinctions among student subgroups, most pronounced in the elementary and middle grades.
From grades 3-10, black students represented the largest single racial or ethnic group held back. In 4th grade, they represented more than half of all students retained, and the rates were still high in some other grades. In 5th grade, 44 percent were black, and in 6th grade, 48 percent. In 8th grade, black students were 42 percent of all those retained. No grade-by-grade enrollment data were available.
"The point is that these kids are being retained out of all proportion, and we need to know why," said Craig D. Jerald, an education consultant. "We can hypothesize. For example, do states with higher black enrollments have tougher retention policies? Is it due to some bias in how retention policies are being applied? Of course, it might be some fundamental educational issue like opportunity to master reading skills by 3rd grade."
He added, "You have to understand what's driving it so you can apply appropriate solutions."
Hispanic retention rates also appeared to be disproportionately high relative to the student population in some, but not all, grade levels. In 1st grade, 39 percent of the students retained were Hispanic, the OCR data show, and at 2nd grade, 43 percent. In grade 4, however, the proportion appeared more even: 23 percent of those retained were Hispanic. Hispanics represented about 24 percent of all K-12 students in the data set.
Ms. Ali said the retention information collected "reveals problems that should concern everybody. Retention means children are not learning, and it leads to higher dropout rates."
But, she added, "a disparity by itself does not constitute a civil rights violation."
National data have long pointed to significant achievement gaps across racial and ethnic lines, even as those gaps have closed somewhat over time. For example, about half of black and Hispanic students scored below the "basic" level in 4th grade reading, based on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 22 percent of white students.
Julie Marsh, a visiting associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, said the racial disparities in the retention data are deeply troubling, but shouldn't come as a big surprise.
"It's not inconsistent with past research on retention," said Ms. Marsh, who also is an adjunct fellow at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp.
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