Campus & Community

Holding 3rd-graders back pushes them forward

3 min read

Kennedy School researcher identifies programs to help low-achieving students

Attending summer school and being “held back” substantially increases academic achievement among third-graders, according to a recent study by researchers Brian Jacob, an assistant professor of public policyof the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young University.

As standards and accountability become increasingly prominent features of the educational landscape, educators have relied more on remedial programs such as summer school and grade retention to help low-achieving students meet academic standards. Yet evidence of the effectiveness of such programs has been mixed. Jacob and Lefgren’s study demonstrates the net effect of remedial programs in Chicago public schools substantially increased academic achievement for third-graders, although the effect was insignificant for sixth-graders.

Jacob and Lefgren made use of an accountability study implemented in Chicago public schools in the 1990s. By examining the records of approximately 148,000 students in the third and sixth grades from 1997 to 1999, the researchers determined that, contrary to conventional wisdom and prior research, retention may actually increase academic achievement for low-achieving third-graders.

“Our results indicate the achievement gains that are possible with remedial education,” Jacob says. “It is obviously important to track the longer-run impacts of these programs. However, in the quest for higher standards and achievement, these programs may offer some hope for students struggling to meet the bar.”

From a public-policy perspective, economists have spent considerable effort examining what factors affect academic achievement. With the growing use of high-stakes testing and implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school districts are imposing tougher standards on students and holding schools accountable for their performance. This increases the necessity for districts to identify effective remedial education programs to help low-achieving students.

Prior studies have been plagued by problems because students who attend summer school or are held back in grade typically have lower achievement levels and other academic difficulties, making it difficult to compare their performance with that of promoted peers. However, because summer school and retention in Chicago were based on strict test score cutoffs, Jacob and Lefgren were able to compare students who just passed the cutoff with those who just failed the cutoff – two groups that were virtually identical except that the latter group was required to attend summer school and face retention. The statistical methodology researchers used is known as a regression-discontinuity design, and it circumvented the selection bias inherent in prior studies.

The study is published in the current issue of the journal The Review of Economics and Statistics.