There is an even greater concern for black students, who are retained at a higher rate because of the existing achievement gap, said Cindy Roper, the research and planning administrator of Clemson's Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education.
"States are under tremendous pressure to produce results and, given the widespread belief in its effectiveness, holding a child back a grade often seems like a logical step," Ms. Roper said in an e-mail. "However, I recommend that states re-evaluate these polices by looking carefully at the research on grade retention."
For instance, grade retention is a strong predictor of whether a student will drop out of school, she said. That's largely because students receive the same instruction on the second go-round as they did the first without any additional support.
"Retaining students without utilizing new approaches to teaching and learning amounts to doing the same thing over again while expecting different results," Ms. Roper said. "Appropriate interventions after retention may increase the likelihood of success, but simply repeating a grade does not appear to be an effective strategy."
There has long been a debate about the effectiveness of retention, but resources are now becoming available to assist students who are retained, said Carol Rountree, Richmond County's director of student services.
"Retention in and of itself doesn't do anything," she said.
But initiatives such as the Early Intervention Program are designed to give previously unsuccessful elementary school students a better chance at catching up with classmates, she said. Additional classes are offered in middle and high school also.
In Columbia County, a committee reviews each case in which a student fails to meet the requirement of the promotion policy, said Lauren Williams, the associate superintendent of student learning.
In these cases, the committee considers whether promotion or retention is to the student's benefit.
Either way, additional support is given to enable the student to catch up and get back on track, Ms. Williams said.
Repeating a grade can also be a bad idea because it can prove traumatic to students, Ms. Roper said. She referred to a 2005 study that found repeating a grade and the death of a parent to be the two most stressful events in an elementary school pupil's life.
"It's difficult to see how something that children consider so traumatic can be effective in increasing academic performance," she said.
There are times when a student should repeat a grade, but the best approach should be to prevent a student from failing in the first place, Ms. Roper said.
Preventative measures are also the most cost-effective solution. She cited a 2005 Duke University report that put the cost of retaining students at $18 billion in addition to the social costs associated with high dropout rates, unemployment and welfare expenses.
Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Black Students Held Back
A Clemson University study found that black students are retained at a higher rate than white students. The same is true locally. Statewide, black students are nearly twice as likely as white students to be held back, although there are fewer black students enrolled in Georgia schools.
Sources: The Georgia Department of Education and The Augusta Chronicle's analysis of department data