Mississippi’s model for improving early literacy has been a standout since 2019, based on its nation-leading achievement growth on the fourth grade NAEP reading test. But its use of grade retention—holding students back in third grade and, if districts choose, earlier—as both a student intervention and an accountability tool, has drawn criticism, especially from educators, many of whom feel that retention amounts to “educational malpractice.”
According to Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, now President of the California State Board of Education, “The findings are about as consistent as any findings are in education research: the use of [retention based on] testing is counterproductive, it does not improve achievement over the long run, but it does dramatically increase dropout rates.”
But that picture seems to be changing, with studies of literacy-focused retention policies, both in Florida and now in Mississippi. A new analysis recently released by Kirsten Slungaard Mumma and Marcus Winters of Boston University provides the first data on the impact of Mississippi’s retention model on the students actually retained.
The results are stunning: In sixth grade, three years after the intervention, retained students outperform similar students by 1.2 standard deviations (a 0.8 effect size is generally considered “large”), with no measurable impact on student absenteeism or special education classification, negative indicators sometimes associated with retention.
In short, it shows a very strong positive impact of retention, at least through sixth grade, with no associated negative effects. The impact was particularly pronounced with Black and Hispanic students.
Mississippi’s retention policy is not a “gate” to hold students back. What some are now calling “purposeful retention” differs from simply “repeating the grade” in two ways. First, by law, retained students must receive a minimum of ninety minutes in reading instruction based on the science of reading and intensive interventions with progress monitoring, among other supports. The retention treatment is designed to specifically address their needs.
Second, retention plays a key role in aligning the system’s adults—teachers, parents, administrators—around meeting the needs of the students. If we want the students to do better, we need to improve the performance of the adults. As Kymyona Burk, the former Mississippi State Literacy Director, has described, Mississippi’s comprehensive literacy policy includes training all primary grade teachers and their administrators; state-provided literacy coaches, deployed directly to high-need schools; changes in teacher preparation programs; and adoption of new instructional materials—all centered around the science of reading, including the building of foundational skills.
In Mississippi, this “purposeful retention” acts as both an intervention for struggling students and as an accountability tool for the system’s adults, designed to support them in changing their practice to align with the state’s science of reading approach. The combination is clearly working.
The magnitude of Mississippi’s accomplishments with early reading is truly impressive and rightly deserves attention and replication by other states. For low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, by 2019, Mississippi had risen to the top five of all the states on the fourth grade NAEP, with each group showing more than a year’s additional progress since 2013. On the Urban Institute’s demographically adjusted NAEP ranking, Mississippi comes in number two among all states in fourth grade reading (just behind Florida).
While there is clearly room for further progress—there are still large gaps between Black and White students, as well as low- and high-income—simply replicating Mississippi’s model would be a huge step forward for almost all states.
Grade retention has played a key role as an accountability measure and an educational intervention in both Mississippi and Florida, the two biggest NAEP improvement stories of the last twenty years. Many educators and policymakers continue to reject it as a tool. Even states that include retention in literacy legislation struggle to put or keep it in effect (such as Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee). But Mississippi and Florida continue to bring in evidence that, done correctly, “purposeful retention” can be a powerful tool for change without the downsides experienced in earlier models.