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Pennsylvania’s Voluntary Student Retention Due to COVID-19 Learning Disruptions

Pennsylvania’s Voluntary Student Retention Due to COVID-19 Learning Disruptions

Typically, decisions to retain a student, or have them repeat a grade, are grounded in a student’s academic progress, a developmental delay, or a lack of motivation. This school year, however, Pennsylvania has added a new reason—COVID-19 learning loss.

Governor Tom Wolf recently signed Act 66 of 2021 into law as an effort to make up for instructional time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Act 66 permits students who were in enrolled in the 2020-21 school year to repeat their grade level or be retained, even if students met grade promotion requirements. The timeline to make this decision is short, however, as parents/guardians and students (if 18 or older) only have until Thursday, July 15th to elect to have their child or themselves repeat a grade level for the upcoming school year.

A full FAQ about Act 66 can be found on the PDE’s website here, including a notification form that families can use and a description of the process.  Below are a few important details:

  • This law applies to students in a PA school district, school district, intermediate unit, career and technical education center, charter school, cyber charter school, regional charter school, nonpublic school, approved private schools, and chartered schools for the deaf and blind.
  • Students with disabilities who turned age 21 during the 2020-21 school year, or between the end of the 2020-21 school year and the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, are permitted to attend a school entity during the 2021-22 school year and receive services as outlined on their most recent Individualized Education Program (IEP)./li>
  • Students can not repeat preschool.
  • PDE’s Bureau of Special Education recommends all decisions made for students with disabilities be made in conjunction with the IEP team and after a review of data. (Note the time constraints of informing schools by July 15th likely make this recommendation from the Bureau impractical for many families, an issue recently reported on by Keystone Crossroads).

To help families who may be wrestling with a decision about retention, this blog discusses similar initiatives in other states and provides a short review of research findings about the possible pros and cons of grade retention.

1. Other state approaches to grade retention after the 2020-21 school year

PA’s law to expand student retention is not entirely unique, although it does appear to give the broadest flexibility for parents/guardians and students to opt into repeating last year’s grade level if they choose. States that recently reported taking or considering a similar approach include:

State Approach to Optional Retention
Florida Parents of public-school students in kindergarten through fifth grade were able to request that children be retained in their current grade levels for the 2021-2022 school year. Parents were asked to submit requests by June 30th but principals can still consider requests after deadline. School leadership is required to discuss request with parents and could decide to create a customized one-year education plan for students instead of retention.
Kentucky Senate Bill 128 was signed into law in March and created the Supplemental School Year Program. This program allows any K-12 student enrolled during the 2020-2021 school year to use the 2021-2022 school year as a supplemental year to retake or supplement courses the student already has taken, but is not intended to simply repeat or gain an additional year to take new courses. A key difference with Kentucky’s approach is that while students had until May 1 to submit a request to their local board of education, and the local board had until June 1 to decide whether to accept all or no requests. Some districts chose not to accept requests because of supplemental intervention already planned like Newport School District.
Ohio A measure was introduced in Ohio but only for 12th grade students to repeat the year if they choose.


In other related news, in the aftermath of COVID-19, 3rd grade reading retention laws have been at the center of the retention conversations across the U.S. For example, Florida and Mississippi, where state laws typically mandate retention of students who fail reading assessments, decided that students will not be held back this year and lawmakers in Michigan are still debating the same issue (Edweek). Other states, however, are continuing or planning to implement 3rd grade reading retention laws. For example, Alabama’s Governor just vetoed Senate Bill 94, which would have delayed the promotion portion of the Alabama Literacy Act for two years. The policy is now set to resume at the end of the 2021-22 school year or next spring. Tennessee moved quickly to pass a similar law for third-grade students in response to COVID-related learning interruptions, which will take effect in 2022-23 school year.


2. Research and Resources for Consideration

RFA conducted a quick scan of literature to determine what we know about retention to date. Retention has been a long-debated topic in the field and research is, not surprisingly, mixed and nuanced. For example, retention criteria and the services students who were retained received varied across studies; less research has been conducted for young learners, who may have had the greatest challenges adjusting to virtual and hybrid options amidst the pandemic.

Even with the limitations, the findings from the research below may be helpful to those weighing potential pros/cons of retention as well as determining key questions to ask district leadership before submitting a request through Act 66.

Key findings from RFA’s scan of literature are as follows:

  • Most research raises concerns about retention:
    • Students who are retained are more likely to drop out of school eventually.
    • 2012 review from the University of Denver’s Marscio Institute for Early Learning and Literacy found 18 out of 21 reports showed neutral or negative effects of retention. Some of the negative effectives cited for early retention include lower achievement, high school drop-out, and dramatically reduced college attendance. The review also found ”sufficient data to conclude that retention in the absence of well-funded, guaranteed, and high-dosage interventions is ineffective or harmful.”
    • Grade retention can lead to higher rates of student misbehavior in the short term.
    • 2018 study from RAND shows NYC grade retention policies had little influence on student misbehavior or absenteeism, but students who were retained averaged fewer credits in high school. This study also found that students retained in middle school were more likely to drop out near the end of high school than their promoted peers. However, retention in elementary school did not impact high school graduation or drop out rates, aligning with the finding from CEELO’s scan (linked below) that age matters.
    • Retention is costly. Retention means a retained student is in public school for an entire additional school year. The Brookings Institute calculated in 2012 that retaining 2.3% of public-school students in the U.S. cost more than $12 billion annually. That estimate excluded costs for additional remedial services and earnings forgone by retained students delayed entry into the workforce.
    • The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) cites evidence that students of color are at greater risk of being retained, regardless of school characteristics, and cautions that retaining students due to COVID-19 learning loss could “exacerbate existing inequities in academic achievement and educational opportunities” as students of color and students from low-income households were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
  • Some research has shown promise, or, at least, circumstantial nuance regarding the impact of grade retention.
    • In 2017, research out of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education used administrative data to study the causal effect of third grade retention under Florida’s test-based promotion policy on student outcomes through high school. The study found students retained in third grade under Florida’s policy:
      1. Experienced “substantial short-term gains in both math and reading achievement.”
      2. Were less likely to be retained later in their educational journeys.
      3. Took fewer remedial courses in high school and improved their grade point averages.

      The research also found no negative impact on graduation.

    • 2015 fact sheet from the Center for Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) concluded age seems to matter as students retained in sixth grade are more likely to complete high school than students who are retained in eighth grade. And, retention has a positive short-term effect on achievement for third graders but not sixth graders.
    • Research has shown that retention does not always have a negative impact on student social and emotional development. CEELO’s scanfound short term social and emotional effects on retained students were mixed, but in the long-term retained students scored lower on personal adjustment measures than promoted students. University of Denver’s factsheet reported two studies showing a modest benefit of retention on behavior, teacher- and peer-liking. The National Association of School Psychologists, however, strongly advocates against retention and citesresearch showing retained students experience lower self-esteem than promoted peers and that students consider retention a stressful life event.

    In general, studies about retention involved students who were struggling academically under relatively normal school circumstances. We were not able to find a study that examined outcomes for students retained due to a year of lost or reduced instruction, as the case may be for students who are electively retained under Act 66.

    As families weigh possible retention for their students, it may help to consider the following questions:

    • What is my child’s or my school’s overall approach to supporting students in reviewing or revisiting concepts from the 2020-21 school year?
    • What interventions or supplemental programming will be offered to me or my child if they repeat their 2020-21 grade level? Will mental health supports be offered for students retained? How do these interventions and supplemental programs compare to those they would have access to if promoted to next grade level?
    • What alternatives exist for reviewing material from last school year at my or my child’s school?
    • What will be the impact be on my child’s school if many families elect for retention? Are there sufficient teachers and resources to adequately serve all the students choosing retention? Will students experience reduced educational opportunities in other areas due accommodations of high numbers of retained students?

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