This brief challenges the long-held notion that grade retention is “bad for kids.”
Can grade retention be beneficial for students?
Answer: Yes. Several recent studies have found that retention in elementary school can be beneficial for students in improving middle school outcomes when the students most likely to benefit are identified and retention is paired with appropriate instructional supports.
What risks are associated with retention?
Answer: There is evidence that students who are retained in middle school are less likely to graduate high school or enroll in college, suggesting that intervening sooner is a safer course.
Is grade retention too costly for school systems?
Answer: Not necessarily, because the long-term costs school systems actually incur could end up being only a fraction of the cost of an additional year of schooling.
The Bottom Line
Retention is more likely to succeed in elementary grades and when coupled with instructional supports that are tailored to the educational needs of retained students.
1. Ensure that retention policies target elementary school, as opposed to middle school.
2. Provide individualized support for students as soon as the risk of retention becomes apparent and continue supporting those who are nevertheless retained.
3. When assessing the cost effectiveness of retention policies, consider the long-term costs, the possible benefits for retained students, and the potential for positive spillovers.
In the twentieth century, education researchers conducted dozens of studies of “discretionary grade retention,” which occurs whenever teachers, parents, and/or principals use their individual or collective discretion to require a student to repeat a grade. High-profile meta-analyses based on these studies concluded that grade retention was associated with poorer academic outcomes (including higher dropout rates) and greater risk of behavioral issues. However, the studies included in these meta-analyses were mostly correlational rather than causal.
Despite these negative findings, concerns about “social promotion,” as well as the increasing popularity of accountability and standardized testing, led to the implementation of universal and theoretically mandatory retention policies in many states and school districts. A decade after President Clinton’s 1998 call to end social promotion, at least six states and twelve large school districts had adopted test-based promotion policies, whereby students had to score above minimum thresholds on standardized tests to advance to the next grade level. By 2020, about half of states required or encouraged school districts to retain students whose third-grade reading scores showed they were struggling to meet basic standards.
The use of test-based promotion policies, including the requirement that retention decisions be based on a clearly defined cut score, allowed for a more rigorous examination of the causal effects of grade retention. As a result, a new and extensive literature has emerged over the past two decades that paints a much more nuanced picture of grade retention and its consequences. This recent work uses methods that focus on students scoring near the test-score cutoffs around which the promotion or retention decision has been made, and the effects we discuss are applicable to the students scoring at this decision threshold.
Question 1: Can grade retention be beneficial for students?
Contrary to the conventional wisdom in education circles, recent research suggests that retention in earlier grades can benefit students. For example, recent studies from Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Chicago, and New York City provide evidence that grade retention in elementary school (generally in grades 3–5), when implemented as part of a broader remediation effort, can increase test scores through middle school and reduce the need for future remediation. Retention in elementary school may also increase the likelihood that students take advanced courses in middle and high school. Furthermore, new evidence suggests that these academic benefits may be substantially larger for students with lower baseline achievement at the time of retention.
In addition to these academic benefits, evidence from descriptive surveys indicates that students retained in elementary school reported a greater sense of school connectedness, lasting several years beyond retention, than comparable students who were promoted. However, research on the effect of grade retention on disciplinary outcomes is skimpy and mixed, with one study finding a short-lived increase in suspensions and the other finding a similarly short-lived decline.
Research also suggests that retention is more likely to succeed when paired with instructional supports that are tailored to the educational needs of students identified as potentially at risk for retention. In fact, all the studies that have found positive effects of retention were of policies that included supplemental instruction for retained students. For example, Florida’s third-grade retention policy, which has provided the blueprint for early grade-retention policies in many other states, requires schools to (1) develop academic improvement plans for students that specifically address their learning needs, (2) assign these students to high-performing teachers, (3) provide at least ninety minutes of daily reading instruction, and (4) offer summer reading camp at the end of the year that facilitates intensive reading intervention lasting between six and eight weeks for all students who scored below the retention cutoff. Similarly, in New York City, Indiana, and Mississippi, both retained and at-risk elementary students who were ultimately promoted received instructional support. It is unlikely that retention alone, without such additional instructional help, would produce similar benefits.
Importantly, evidence suggests that providing supplemental services to at-risk students in the time prior to the promotion decision drastically reduces the number of retained students. For example, when New York City’s policy was initiated for fifth graders, 22 percent of the first cohort was identified as at-risk of being retained. After exposure to a dedicated set of academic intervention services throughout the school year, only 3 percent of the cohort was ultimately retained. Later cohorts, who were exposed to the policy’s intervention services in earlier grades, saw a large reduction in the proportion of students needing intervention services upon entry to fifth grade.
Retention policies that identify students who are likely to benefit from retention are also more likely to succeed. For example, under Florida’s legislation, low-performing third graders are exempt from retention if they have certain disabilities and have been already retained once; if they have received intensive reading remediation for two years and have already been retained twice; if they have been in the English-learner program for less than two years; if they can perform at an acceptable level on an alternative reading assessment approved by the State Board of Education; or if they can demonstrate proficiency through a teacher-developed portfolio.
Similarly, establishing the right criteria for promotion is important because retention may be less effective for relatively higher-performing students and because retaining too many students may hinder schools’ ability to provide the necessary instructional support. For example, one study finds that students just above Florida’s retention cutoff as well as low-performing students who were exempt from the policy would have been less likely to benefit from retention had they received it. In other words, Florida’s retention policy may be successful in part because it endeavors to identify the students who are likely to benefit.
In short, recent research has shown that grade retention in elementary school can increase test scores through middle school and reduce the need for future remediation. It is most likely to succeed when it is supplemented with individualized instructional support as soon as the risk of retention becomes apparent and when the students who are ultimately retained are the students who are likely to benefit from the experience.
Question 2: What risks are associated with retention?
While the evidence on grade retention in the elementary grades has become increasingly positive, the research on retention in middle school grades remains negative. Despite the fact that the structure of middle school retention policies has generally mirrored that of elementary retention policies, including requirements for demonstrating a minimum proficiency on applicable state assessments and instructional supports, overall the research on these policies suggests little or no effect on academic achievement and higher levels of student disengagement. For example, students retained in middle school are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to drop out. Additional evidence from Louisiana finds that students retained in eighth grade are less likely to enroll in college and more likely to be involved in criminal activity as adults.
Although additional research is needed to understand why negative impacts are more likely to occur when retention is implemented in the higher grades, one common argument against grade retention policies is that they place a significant emotional burden on students: because students can be stigmatized as failing and must adjust to a new peer group, they may feel singled out and disengage from schooling.
One factor that might exacerbate these unintended consequences is inconsistent enforcement of retention policies. After all, despite the important role that test scores play in twenty-first-century retention policies, because many students receive exemptions, only a fraction of students who are identified for retention based on their test scores are actually retained. While these exemptions could help schools avoid retaining students who are less likely to benefit from retention, discretionary exemptions (such as using portfolios of student work) can also lead to differential policy enforcement because parents from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to advocate for (and succeed in) avoiding retention, which could contribute to feelings of being excluded or singled out for retained students, especially among traditionally marginalized groups. While differential enforcement is also a concern for earlier grade retention, the negative academic effects found for middle school retention, such as lower graduation rates, do not materialize in the earlier grades.
In short, available evidence indicates that retention in middle school grades is less likely to succeed. This is perhaps because it leads to feelings of being singled out; however, the reasons why middle school grade retention is not as successful requires further study.
Question 3: Is retention too costly for school systems?
Another criticism of grade retention is that it is expensive for school systems because schools must offer an additional school year to retained students. However, to make an informed decision, policymakers must consider the long-term benefits of retention, as well as the timing of the costs.
Recent studies suggest that the long-run cost of early grade retention is only a fraction of the cost of an additional year of schooling because retained students are significantly less likely to be identified for remediation or retained again in later grades. And conversely, students who are at risk of retention but are ultimately promoted often take longer than four years to graduate high school.
As noted, in addition to these fiscal offsets, there is evidence that (in addition to boosting middle school test scores) early grade retention increases the likelihood of taking college-credit-bearing courses in high school, potentially better preparing students for college-level coursework. Furthermore, many cost-effectiveness calculations also ignore the potential for spillover effects. For example, the threat of retention could improve outcomes for a broad set of students, as may have happened in Florida, where the share of first-time third graders scoring below the retention cutoff dropped from 21 percent to 14 percent in the first five years of implementation. Logically, this change was very likely driven by improved learning experiences for students in earlier grades and during the third-grade year, rather than retention itself. Finally, the threat of retention could lead parents to reallocate their resources (whether in the form of time or money) to avoid the retention of their children. For example, new evidence suggests that the benefits of early grade retention can spill over to the younger siblings of identified students, in part because parents are more likely to move their younger child to a higher-performing school when the older sibling is identified for retention.
From a public policy perspective, all these spillover effects are “free” and as such may have profound effects on the cost effectiveness of early grade-retention policies. The overwhelming majority of students aren’t retained, so even a small spillover effect on the educational outcomes of students not targeted by the policy (e.g., their siblings or their peers not at risk of retention) could offset the costs associated with retention. In short, it is important for policymakers to weigh the long-term benefits of retention and the likely spillover effects on nonretained students against the likely costs.
Despite the volume of research on grade retention, we have much to learn. For example, the long-term effects of early grade-retention policies are not well understood, and there is potential for the effects experienced in middle school to dissipate. We need more research on how early grade retention affects students with lower baseline achievement and/or other educational needs, because some evidence suggests that effects could be substantially different for this population. In addition to these gaps, we still know little about the spillover effects of early grade-retention policies on other students (though what we do know seems promising). Finally, additional research is needed to better understand the reasons for the seemingly negative impacts of grade retention in middle school.
The Bottom Line
Empirical research in the twenty-first century provides substantial evidence that grade retention in elementary school can be an effective lever for improving student outcomes. But school and district leaders should absorb the full lessons of the past two decades: waiting until middle school, retaining kids without providing the necessary supports, or failing to identify the students most likely to benefit are unlikely to yield the desired results and could even lead to adverse effects.
1. Ensure that retention policies target elementary school, as opposed to middle school.
2. Provide individualized support for students as soon as the risk of retention becomes apparent and continuing support to those who are nevertheless retained.
3. When assessing the cost effectiveness of retention policies, consider the long-term costs, the possible benefits for retained students, and the potential for positive spillovers.
 Arthur J. Reynolds and Judy Temple, “Grade retention doesn’t work,” Education Week, September 17, 1997, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-grade-retention-doesnt-work/1997/09.
 Charles T. Holmes, “Grade level retention effects: A meta-analysis of research studies,” in Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention, eds. L. A. Shepard and M. L. Smith (London: Falmer Press, 1989), 16–33; and Shane R. Jimerson, “Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century,” School Psychology Review 30, no. 3 (September 2001): 420–37, https://doi.org/10.1080/02796015.2001.12086124.
 Education Commission of the States, “50-state comparison: State K–3 policies,” https://www.ecs.org/50-state-comparison-state-k-3-policies-2023.
 Guido Schwerdt, Martin R. West, and Marcus Winters, “The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida,” Journal of Public Economics 152 (August 2017): 154–69, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2017.06.004.
 NaYoung Hwang and Cory Koedel, “Holding back to move forward: The effects of retention in the third grade on student outcomes” (EdWorkingPaper no. 22-688, Annenberg Institute at Brown University, December 2022), https://doi.org/10.26300/mmxx-3e82.
 Kirsten Slungaard Mumma and Marcus A. Winters, “The effect of retention under Mississippi’s test-based promotion policy” (working paper 2023-1, Wheelock Educational Policy Center at Boston University, Winter 2023), https://doi.org/10.26300/hq2t-7x64.
 Brian A. Jacob and Lars Lefgren, “Remedial education and student achievement: A regression-discontinuity analysis,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 81, no. 1 (2004): 226–44, https://doi.org/10.1162/003465304323023778.
 Louis T. Mariano and Paco Martorell, “The academic effects of summer instruction and retention in New York City,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 35, no. 1 (March 2013): 96–117, https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373712454327.
 Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, “Revisiting grade retention: An evaluation of Florida’s test-based promotion policy,” Education Finance and Policy 2, no. 4 (2007): 319–40, https://doi.org/10.1162/edfp.2007.2.4.319; and David Figlio and Umut Özek, “An extra year to learn English? Early grade retention and the human capital development of English learners,” Journal of Public Economics 186 (June 2020): 104184, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2020.104184.
 Figlio and Özek, “An extra year to learn English?”
 Isaac M. Opper and Umut Özek, “A global regression discontinuity design: Theory and application to grade retention policies” (EdWorkingPaper no. 23-798, Annenberg Institute at Brown University, June 2023), https://edworkingpapers.com/sites/default/files/ai23-798.pdf.
 Vi-Nhuan Le, Louis T. Mariano, and Al Crego. “The Impact of New York City’s Promotion Policy on Students’ Socio-emotional Status.” In: Ending Social Promotion Without Leaving Children Behind: The Case of New York City, eds. Jennifer Sloan McCombs, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, and Louis T. Mariano (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009).
 Paco Martorell and Louis T. Mariano, “The causal effects of grade retention on behavioral outcomes,” Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness 11, no. 2 (2018): 192–216, https://doi.org/10.1080/19345747.2017.1390024.
 Amy Cummings and Meg Turner, “COVID-19 and third-grade reading policies: An analysis of state guidance on third-grade reading policies in response to COVID-19” (policy brief, Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, October 2020), https://epicedpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/RBG3-Reading-Policies-FINAL-10-29-20.pdf.
 Jennifer Sloan McCombs, Scott Naftel, Gina Schuyler Ikemoto, Catherine DiMartino, and Daniel Gershwin. “School-Provided Support for Students: Academic Intervention Services.” In: Ending Social Promotion Without Leaving Children Behind: The Case of New York City, eds. Jennifer Sloan McCombs, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, and Louis T. Mariano (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009).
 Sheila Nataraj Kirby, Scott Naftel, Jennifer Sloan McCombs, Daniel Gershwin,and Al Crego. “Performance of 5th Graders in New York City and Overall Performance Trends in new York State.” In: Ending Social Promotion Without Leaving Children Behind: The Case of New York City, eds. Jennifer Sloan McCombs, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, and Louis T. Mariano (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009).
 Opper and Özek, “A global regression discontinuity design.”
 Julie A. Marsh, Daniel Gershwin, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, and Nailing Xia, Retaining students in grade: Lessons learned regarding policy design and implementation (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009), https://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR677.html.
 Brian A. Jacob and Lars Lefgren, “The effect of grade retention on high school completion,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1, no. 3 (July 2009): 33–58, https://doi.org/10.1257/app.1.3.33.
 Louis T. Mariano, Paco Martorell, and Tiffany Berglund, The effects of grade retention on high school outcomes: Evidence from New York City schools (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018), https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR1259.html.
 Matthew F. Larsen and Jon Valant, “Fuzzy difference-in-discontinuities when the confounding variation is sharp: evidence from grade retention policies,” Applied Economics Letters 30, no. 15 (2023): 2009–13, https://doi.org/10.1080/13504851.2022.2089339.
 Ozkan Eren, Michael F. Lovenheim, and H. Naci Mocan, “The effect of grade retention on adult crime: Evidence from a test-based promotion policy,” Journal of Labor Economics 40, no. 2 (April 2022): 361–95, https://doi.org/10.1086/715836.
 For example, in the first year of Florida’s third-grade retention policy, one-third of students who scored below the cutoff were promoted because they received exemptions. This number increased to 55 percent in the fifth year of the policy. See Christina LiCalsi, Umut Özek, and David Figlio, “The uneven implementation of universal school policies: Maternal education and Florida’s mandatory grade retention policy,” Education Finance and Policy 14, no. 3 (2019): 383–413, https://doi.org/10.1162/edfp_a_00252.
 Marcus A. Winters, “The cost of retention under a test-based promotion policy for taxpayers and students,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (2022): https://doi.org/10.3102/01623737221138041; and Mariano, Martorell, and Berglund, The effects of grade retention on high school outcomes.
 Figlio and Özek, “An extra year to learn English?”; and Schwerdt, West, and Winters, “The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time.”
 Mariano, Martorell, and Berglund, The effects of grade retention on high school outcomes.
 Figlio and Özek, “An extra year to learn English?”
 LiCalsi, Özek, and Figlio, “The uneven implementation of universal school policies.”
 David N. Figlio, Krzysztof Karbownik, and Umut Özek, “Sibling spillovers may enhance the efficacy of targeted school policies” (working paper 31406, National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2023), https://doi.org/10.3386/w31406.
 Opper and Özek, “A global regression discontinuity design.”
This brief was made possible through the generous support of our sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. We are deeply grateful to authors Umut Özek and Louis Mariano for their knowledgeable and unbiased approach to this important subject. We also extend our gratitude to external reviewer Marcus Winters for his insightful feedback on early versions of the brief, and to Pamela Tatz for copyediting the final report. At Fordham, we would like to thank Chester E. Finn, Jr., Michael J. Petrilli, Amber M. Northern, and David Griffith (who also managed the project) for reviewing drafts; Victoria McDougald for her role in dissemination; and Stephanie Distler for developing the report’s cover art and coordinating production.
There are forty-four phonemes that make up every word in the English language. Some of these small units of sound occur more frequently than others, but none can be dispensed with entirely when teaching children to sound out words and read with fluency—not even the phoneme /d/ as in “Democrat” or /r/ as in “Republican.”
I feel compelled to bring this up because, despite the fact that those forty-four phonemes are non-partisan and commonly employed by speakers of all political persuasions, it has come to my attention that some in our field are under the misimpression that teaching children to read is a partisan project.
Candor requires me to admit that, despite having taught elementary reading and studied curriculum and instructional issues for more than two decades, I was unaware until this week of the partisan nature of language proficiency. However, a dispatch in our field’s paper of record, Education Week, reported that the Oklahoma State Department of Education was “joining forces” with Moms for Liberty, a “conservative political organization...which some civil rights watchdogs have called an extremist group.” This unholy alliance took the form of Oklahoma declaring the first week in October—reader, brace yourself—“Teach Kids to Read Week.”
Per Education Week, Oklahoma’s announcement “promises to further complicate the thorny political landscape of the ‘science of reading’ movement, by linking what has been a bipartisan—if sometimes uneasy—movement nationwide for improved instruction in foundational literacy to an explicitly political group.” Are we meant to understand that progressive support for evidence-based instruction will collapse if conservative parents, too, want their children to be taught to read?
Given that we have had at least a half century of kids not being taught to read, their instruction dominated by ineffective curricula, untethered pedagogies, and philosophies for which empirical support is limited to nonexistent, this seems a strange time to call the science of reading into question because people from the “wrong” side embrace it. But here we are.
Moms for Liberty, Oklahoma’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walter, and their ilk have already been fitted for black hats. And now they must play their assigned role as extremist fringe actors. Should they fail to play that role (by supporting the science of reading, for example), their motivations must be called into question. It’s all tendentious nonsense, of course. Let me say this as dispassionately as possible. If your views on instructional practices are shaped not by evidence, data, personal experience, or even common sense, but are instead a knee-jerk response to people whose politics you despise, you have lost the plot. And you’re not going to do kids any good in the classroom.
Of course, this is not the first time we’ve seen effective instructional practice slip into the maw of partisan politics. The 2001 Reading First initiative, launched under President George W. Bush, enjoyed a brief moment of bipartisan support and was found to have produced “a positive and statistically significant impact on amount of instructional time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction” described by the National Reading Panel. Yet Tim Shanahan, a member of the National Reading Panel, has observed how charges of political cronyism and partisan differences over the Iraq war scuttled Reading First, despite evidence of its effectiveness. “When it came time to reauthorize this expensive program, there was no political will among Democrats to support the president on anything,” he said.
The present “science of reading” movement is fresh rebranding of a elements of sound reading instruction that have been well-understood for decades. This dates back to mid-century, first to 1955’s best-selling exposé by Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do About It, then to a seminal 1967 work of scholarship by Harvard Education Professor Jeanne Chall, Learning to Read: The Great Debate. From then onward, the “science of reading”—of learning to read in the early grades—was settled and should have stayed that way, even if (alas) conservatives like explicit phonics instruction. Indeed, nearly all of us have felt cognitive dissonance and discomfort, even shame, of discovering that our enemies embrace something we also prize. But most of us grow out of it by the time we reach adolescence.
Yet negative polarization, a chronic problem in our sector, reliably thwarts progress even when people of good will rally around effective practice across party lines. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., among the most important education theorists of the past half century, has described himself as “practically a socialist,” yet his work was championed by conservatives, particularly Bill Bennett, Checker Finn, and (at the time) Diane Ravitch. Hirsch’s many voluble critics were never able to see past what they mindlessly derided as a “dead, white male curriculum” and couldn’t be bothered to acquaint themselves with even the most rudimentary basics of how language proficiency is achieved. More accurately, they refused to be bothered because it would force them to grapple with their social and political priors, to which they attached far greater importance than the comparatively trivial matter of whether or not children learned to read.
Much the same thing happened at much the same time to the late Allan Bloom, whose seminal work, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), depicted and foreshadowed the collapse of liberal learning—and free inquiry—that plagues so many of our colleges and universities today. Bloom was arguing for a classically liberal approach to higher education, yet because he was himself described as a conservative, his scholarship and insights were trashed by “liberals.”
Having seen this tired act many times, forgive me if I’m a bit impatient. If the limit of your sophistication on matters of curriculum and instruction is “if people I despise like it, it must be bad,” you’re not on the side of the angels. And you probably shouldn’t be teaching small children to read.
Texas legislators returned to Austin earlier this week to try once again to enact a statewide school-choice program in the form of education savings accounts. Post-pandemic, Governor Greg Abbott is one of several state executives who have enthusiastically embraced the popular policy innovation known as “ESAs.” However, it remains to be seen whether legislators will agree to make the Lone Star State the fourteenth to enact such a program. That’s because the issue of school choice in Texas divides lawmakers not only along partisan lines, but rural-urban ones, as well—to say nothing of recent internecine feuds that would give D.C. a run for its money. But regardless of how the knotty politics play out for ESAs, Texas is quickly re-emerging as the most interesting state in the union when it comes to education reform.
Indeed, the pursuit of “education freedom” is just one of several noteworthy initiatives underway. As I wrote last month, the state’s takeover of Houston’s giant Independent School District could blaze new ground in how to turn around large, dysfunctional urban school systems. Test results will ultimately help gauge whether the effort is deemed successful, but early indicators appear promising. Districtwide, student misbehavior is down significantly from the previous year—especially in the eighty-five schools implementing Mike Miles’s wholesale transformation model. Teacher absences have also dropped precipitously, declining nearly 40 percent. While the national issue of chronic absenteeism has largely been focused on students, less talked about is the problematic increase in teachers calling out sick.
Texas school boards and educators are watching. Up until last month, Austin ISD also faced the prospect of a state takeover. Shortcomings in providing special education services had for years plagued the district in Texas’s capital city, putting it firmly in the Texas Education Agency’s crosshairs. To avoid an all-out takeover, Austin’s board of trustees voted to accept the state’s “alternative plan,” which requires additional monitoring of special education.
Close observers may note the parallels with how Houston eventually ended up in hot water. HISD’s elected trustees could have avoided a full-on state conservatorship if they had surrendered control of one of the district’s lowest-performing schools. Instead, they called what they thought was the state’s bluff. It proved to be a grave error, and thus taught local officials in Austin to heed TEA’s resolve. A lesson learned is that, in Texas, you can hang your hat on the state stepping in if school districts don’t deliver on their obligation to students. (There have been fifteen previous state takeovers in Texas over the last three decades.) That’s something which can’t be said convincingly of most other states.
At the same time, Texas is in the process of “refreshing” the formula for its A–F accountability system. Not unlike other states that employ similar school ratings, Lone Star schools and districts evaluated with letter grades feel pressure to improve, which in the aggregate leads to higher achievement and test scores. Through the years, however, Texas has been watering down its standards and giving in to demands for less rigorous measures. For example, between 2019 and last year (Texas adopted the A–F system in 2017), the number of schools in Houston ISD receiving A or B ratings rose from 135 to 213—this despite the pandemic. During the same period, the number of D or F schools declined from forty-seven to seventeen. Now, Texas is preparing to raise the bar, which in the short term will increase the number of failing schools. To wit, when the new ratings are released later this month, Houston anticipates that up to eighty schools will fall within the D or F category.
Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, more than a dozen districts have sued the state in response to rising standards. (Texas has over 1,000 school districts.) A key point of contention is the CCMR—College, Career, and Military Readiness—portion of the rating system. Previously, a high school would get an A if just 60 percent of its seniors either enrolled in college, pursued a career, or joined the military. The updated criteria lift that benchmark to 88 percent. There are other arguments from these districts, too, but ultimately, their protests reflect a larger aversion to having hard (and honest) conversations with parents about student performance, as well as being generally allergic to accountability. It’s worth noting that in Florida, where A–F ratings were birthed, the state revised its formula nine times over eighteen years. With other states lowering the bar or even hiding the ball, it’s refreshing to see Texas’s commitment to raising expectations.
What’s more, the state is no slouch when it comes to academic rigor and racial equity, especially as it relates to advanced mathematics. A new Texas law signed by Abbott in May calls for middle school students in the state to be automatically enrolled in advanced math if they score in the top 40 percent of the state’s exam. The new practice will likely increase the number of students ready to enroll in algebra in the eighth grade, especially Black and Latino students who have historically been shut out of advanced math courses. In Dallas ISD, the policy has increased the share of Black sixth graders from 17 percent enrolled in honors math to 43 percent; the percentage of Latino sixth graders from one-third to nearly 60 percent. In high school, this should translate to more Black and Latino students in calculus and statistics. Again, Texas is raising the bar.
Texas has also gone against the grain in its strategic provision of tutoring for struggling students. While other states hemmed and hawed about the utility of state test results during Covid, lawmakers in Texas embraced the use of assessment data and enshrined specific tutoring requirements for students performing below grade level. Specifically, a law signed by Abbott in June 2021 required schools to provide at least thirty hours of tutoring to each student that did not pass the state exam. To be sure, implementation proved to be logistically challenging, but directionally, the spirit of data-powered education recovery is one worth emulating.
Overseeing this renaissance is the state’s highly capable and admirably wonky education commissioner, Mike Morath. One of the longest-serving state chiefs in the country, Morath is also one of the most interesting. Unlike the firebrands among some in the Texas political class, he has carved a unique niche in the nation’s second largest state for K–12 enrollment by focusing on policy and data, not politics and dogma. Like his hand-picked superintendent in Houston, Morath has little interest in today’s culture war fights and is motivated instead by the mission of empowering families and doing right by Texas’s students. A father of four himself, he has spoken passionately about his struggles with finding the right school for each of his children and how the experience fueled his dedication to arming parents with more and better information.
Back in the early aughts, part of what brought then Governor George Bush to the presidency (and ushered in NCLB) was pretty solid evidence that Texas’s school reforms up to that point had done a lot of good—especially for the state’s most marginalized children. Along with North Carolina, Rand was rating Texas as being at the top. Bush capitalized on this success and wanted to apply it to the entire country. I remember working as a teacher in the Rio Grande Valley at that time and thinking to myself that there was something special happening with regard to focusing energy and attention on poor and minority students—including the emerging use of test results to do well by them.
Today, many of Texas’s important efforts continue to rely on the data provided by state standardized testing—using it to help drive resources and target interventions. So while assessment and accountability continue to shrink in the nation’s rearview mirror, the opposite is true in the Lone Star State, where everything seems to be getting bigger when it comes to school reform.
Many school districts use teacher rating scales to identify students for advanced (i.e., gifted) programming, such as supplementary instruction and separate classes or schools. On these scales, teachers opine on the likelihood that a child is advanced by assigning a value—such as, on one prominent option, a number on a scale of 1 to 9. But how fair is this process? In a recent working paper, a team of analysts from the University of Connecticut and NWEA examined the variation in teacher ratings and the prevalence and potential consequences of “rater dependence”—that is, the degree to which ratings depend on teachers, as opposed to students.
To investigate this issue, the researchers used student-level data from four unidentified but geographically diverse school districts that were legally required to identify and serve advanced students. For each district, the data set included information on math and reading achievement test scores, cognitive ability tests, demographics, and complete and comprehensive teacher ratings for at least one grade level. Each district used a different scale for its teacher rating scales: one used the Gifted Rating Scales, one used the HOPE Scale, and two used their own scales. Employing a random effects model, the researchers analyzed the variation in teachers’ ratings of students within each district while controlling for students’ cognitive ability, achievement, and demographics.
The findings are a mix of good and bad news. As for the former, researchers find that teachers do assign higher ratings to students with higher scores on achievement and cognitive ability tests, as one would hope. They also did not find any consistent relationships between teachers’ ratings and students’ race and ethnicity once achievement and other variables were taken into account. In other words, teachers did not display any statistically significant bias based on race or ethnicity when identifying students.
On the bad-news side, analysts found that 10 to 25 percent of variance in teachers’ ratings of students is determined by their individual teacher, not anything inherent in the child. Picture two students in different classes taught by different teachers in the same school. They score the exact same on their cognitive ability and achievement tests, yet receive very different teacher ratings. One student is identified as likely advanced and the other is not.
This variation between educators at individual schools calls into question the usefulness of teacher ratings as an element in identifying students for services. On the one hand, it’s possible that the problem is caused by a dearth of high-quality training and careful implementation among teachers, hence some murkiness on how and whom to identify as an advanced student, for example. On the other hand, maybe the ratings themselves are inherently flawed and doomed to teacher error and bias. This suggests that, where administrators insist on using educator ratings for identification, they ought to be used exclusively as a means to include students who aren’t otherwise identified as advanced based on test scores; no students with sufficiently high scores should be denied advanced programming because of a low teacher rating. And educators should be effectively trained on how to use these systems. Another viable option is to not use them at all.
SOURCE: D. Betsy McCoach et al., “How Much Teacher Is in Teacher Rating Scales?,” Annenberg Institute (August 2023).
On this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast, Denisha Allen, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, joins Mike to discuss if school choice can win a victory in Texas’s special legislative session. Then, on the Research Minute, Amber reports on a new study that examines the shrinking wage premium for college degrees.
- “Advance school choice, because Black minds matter, too” —Denisha Allen
- “School choice faces special session fight in Texas” —The Hill
- “What you make depends on where you live: College earnings across states and metropolitan areas” —Fordham Institute
- Leila Bengali, Marcus Sander, Robert Valletta, and Cindy Zhao, “Falling college wage premiums by race and ethnicity,” The Federal Research Bank of San Francisco (August 2023).
Feedback Welcome: Have ideas for improving our podcast? Send them to Daniel Buck at [email protected].
- Efforts to address chronic absenteeism must include a healthy dose of tough love. —Bloomberg
- A school district in Oregon increased teacher salaries dramatically, especially for new recruits, and it helped it solve its teacher shortage. —Education Week
- Schools run by the Department of Defense enroll 66,000 students and achieve some of the highest test scores in the nation. —New York Times
- Unable to assign tardies, zeroes, or consequences, teachers cannot hold students accountable, and it’s harming student learning and educator morale. —Jessica Grose, New York Times
- The Chicago Teachers Union plays a starring role in the Windy City’s descent into high crime, failing schools, and shuttered businesses. —George Will, Washington Post
- Pandemic-era learning loss could result in $28 trillion in less income for this generation. —Eric Hanushek, Education Next
- California high schools may no longer suspend students for cussing out their teachers. —Los Angeles Times
- The yawning gap in life expectancy between high school grads and dropouts is more complicated than some narratives imply. —Dylan Matthews, Vox
- Florida approved usage of the CLT, a classical alternative to the SAT and ACT, but the fledgling test remains unproven. —Nick Anderson, Washington Post
- One columnist’s experience getting kicked out of school for lying about her address so she could attend a better school. —Barbara Martinez, Mosaic
- As student enrollment declines, districts face school closures and questions about what to do with vacant buildings. —Bloomberg