The research, published online Friday at Teachers College Record, looked at data from more than 79,000 students in 334 North Carolina middle schools.
In schools with high numbers of students who repeated a grade, there were more suspensions, substance abuse problems, fights and classroom disruptions. Researchers said the study indicates the decision to hold students back can have negative consequences for their classmates.
The Duke researchers said educators tend to focus on how individual students fare when they are held back. Just as important may be the question of how that decision affects other children, said Clara Muschkin, associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.
The study’s authors examined data from the state’s public schools and looked at differences among those with older and retained students.
If 20 percent of children in seventh grade were older than their peers, for example, the chance that other students would commit an infraction or be suspended increased by 200 percent.
The study controlled for other factors that could explain the impact, including schools’ socioeconomic makeup and parents’ education level.
When there were more older and retained students present, discipline problems increased for all subgroups, but were particularly pronounced among white students and girls of all races.
“There’s a strong relationship here that we think is likely to be causal,” Muschkin said.
Holding failing students back has been advocated by critics of social promotion.
The study suggests that the practice has a negative school-wide impact, Muschkin said, and therefore educators should focus more on struggling students through tutoring, summer school and mentoring.
“Support for older and retained students is an investment in the achievement and climate of the entire school,” Muschkin said.
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