The Texas Education Agency recently reported, for instance, based on the 2009-10 school year, that in grades 2-5 and 8-12, African-American and Hispanic students were at least twice as likely to be retained as white students.
A recent literature review by RAND identified a variety of student characteristics associated with retention, including not only prior achievement but also family background, such as income levels and parent educational levels.
At the secondary school level, the OCR data show that overall retention rates balloon, rising from about 38,000 students at 8th grade to 251,000 in the 9th grade, far more than any earlier grade. In grade 10, the figure is 180,000.
Experts say the 9th grade bump isn't surprising.
"We've always seen the highest retention rates among 9th graders," said Mr. Jerald. "A lot of students enter high school completely unprepared, so 9th grade is a very difficult transition year. ... When students arrive in high school, they're expected to take a lot more personal responsibility for their learning than in middle school."
Experts also note that the issue of earning sufficient credits to graduate starts to come into play, and that if students are far behind, they may repeat the grade.
The racial contrasts in retention rates appear to relax, but not disappear, in high school. Among 9th graders retained, 35 percent were black students, compared with 31 percent Hispanic and 31 percent white. By 12th grade, in fact, 40 percent of the retained students were white, compared with 25 percent black and 31 percent Hispanic.
Some experts say one reason for that change may be that black and Hispanic students drop out of high school at disproportionate rates.
States' Retention Policies
Education Week also analyzed retention data for five of the most populous states: California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.
Florida's figures for 3rd graders dwarfed the others, even though its total K-12 population is far smaller than that of California and Texas. It's important to note, however, that the state for about a decade has had a retention policy tied to performance on the reading portion of a state assessment. In all, the data show 8,790 Florida students reported as being held back in the schools surveyed. By comparison, 3,825 students were retained in Texas; 1,930 in Illinois; 1,070 in California; and 355 in New York, according to the OCR data.
About half of all Florida students retained were black, though African-Americans were only about 24 percent of the entire K-12 population reported to the OCR.
Jaryn Emhof, the communications director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said the state's retention policy has been coupled with a variety of early interventions as well as other measures to ensure students who are held back get plenty of extra help.
"Not all retention is created equal," she said, adding that it's important not to look simply at retention data but also academic outcomes. And here she points to improvements in reading scores on state tests and NAEP. On the 4th grade reading NAEP, Florida has seen big gains over the past decade, though scores at the 8th grade have been flat.
Ms. Emhof also notes that Florida's 3rd grade retention rate has declined sharply over time.
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