Kids at Risk of Repeating a Grade? Less So in N.J.

Blog Post
March 28, 2013

Last week, the National Institute for Early Education Research released new data on the impact of preschool from a study of New Jersey’s state-funded pre-K program. By following children’s progress for more than six years, researchers determined that even in fifth grade, kids who had attended pre-K were still doing significantly better than their peers on a variety of academic measures. Those academic results alone make a strong case for better investments in pre-K, but let’s consider one finding that deserves special attention in debates about the cost of pre-K: The children who attended the publicly funded pre-K program were also less likely to repeat a grade.

The study showed that even by fifth grade, the chance of retention (the jargonny word for being held back or repeating a grade) was reduced by 40 percent if children had attended the state’s Abbott pre-K program.

The graph above, published in the executive summary of the report, shows that 19 percent of children who did not receive pre-K were held back at some time during their K-5 years, compared to 11 percent of pre-K attendees.    (The graph also shows a drop in the percentage of children who were referred for special-education services.) The 19-percent statistic – showing that nearly one in five children without pre-K services are repeating a grade – is in keeping with national statistics on low-income and minority children. Data from a 2009 report by the Institute for Education Statistics shows that 16 percent of African American children, for example, are retained in at least one grade before high school, and that in 2007, nearly one-quarter of low-income children had been retained.

The Abbott program is named after a court case, Abbott v. Burke,  that led the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1998 to order the state to offer high-quality preschool and increase other education services in 31 low-income districts. Any children, aged 3 and 4, who live in these districts are given free access to pre-K programs that meet high standards, such as having low child-to-teacher ratios and professional teachers.  More than two-thirds of the pre-K programs are run by private providers and Head Start centers that contract with local boards of education. The other one-third of pre-K classrooms are part of public schools.

Why linger on this data point about retention? Because this is where the pre-K and other quality programs for children in their early years can help to save money for school districts years down the road. When a teacher or school decides to hold a child back, they are essentially signing up to pay for a full extra year of schooling for that child. The more children who are retained, the more costs borne by the district.

“We typically do not think of retention as costing extra funds,” said Richard Clifford, a senior scientist for the Frank Porter Graham Institute in a presentation on grade-retention policies in North Carolina several years ago. “But in reality a retained child spends a full extra year in school and thus costs the state and local governments the same as adding another child for one year – they require teachers, materials and equipment, and space just like any other pupil.”

In North Carolina, concerns about the costs of retention (both social and economic) have fueled new efforts to provide not only high-quality pre-K programs but also high-quality teaching that is aligned from pre-K through the third grade.

Other studies of high-quality pre-K have also shown a drop in retention. Research on the Child-Parent Centers of Chicago, has shown “rates of grade retention and special education nearly cut in half,” according to a recent blog post by Arthur Reynolds, a University of Minnesota researcher. Reynolds is now leading the expansion of the CPC program within the Chicago Public Schools and several other school districts across Illinois and Minnesota.

The authors of the New Jersey study, known as the Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES): Fifth Grade Follow-Up, argue that “New Jersey would be wise to take additional steps to build on its success to date,” by expanding the program to all children from low-income families throughout the state and eventually to all children regardless of family demographics. 

The New Jersey results have already received some press attention in part because they follow President Obama’s preschool proposal and add to a growing pile of studies on what high-quality preschool means for children’s success. Providing pre-K plus quality instruction across each grade of school has also emerged as a significant contributor to reductions in ing achievement gaps, according to our 2009 report, Education Reform Starts Early: Lessons from New Jersey’s PreK-3rd Reform Efforts, and in Gordon MacInnes’s book, In Plain Sight.  David Kirp’s new book, Improbable Scholars, tells the story of one of these districts, Union City, NJ.

No child should have to repeat a grade. The New Jersey study provides yet more evidence for providing high-quality pre-K programs to young children and following them up with good instruction throughout elementary school. This is a prevention strategy that can lead to significant savings – and better outcomes for children.