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Research | Who is asked to repeat a grade in North Carolina?

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This article was originally published by Carolina Demography.

Most students are promoted to the next grade level at the end of a school year. But some students are asked to repeat a grade level. The academic term for this is “grade retention,” or “non-promotion.” These terms are used interchangeably in this article.

My initial motivation for writing this piece came from investigating school performance indicators pre- and post-pandemic, which I did in a previous piece regarding chronic absenteeism.

As I investigated the publicly available data, I noticed a persistent trend pre- and post-pandemic: schools with high relative rates of grade retention map disproportionately onto schools with high concentrations of Black students.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) calculates grade retention at the end of each school year. They then recalculate this number in the fall, because some students are promoted to the next grade level after completing summer school.

After the adjustments are made for post-summer school promotions, we have data on retention rates from the previous school year.

Research suggests that previous studies “fail to demonstrate that grade retention provides greater benefits to students with academic or adjustment difficulties than promotion to the next grade.” Grade retention has also been found to be strongly correlated with dropping out of HS, and these effects were strongest with Black and Latino females. Other research highlights “retention is more likely to succeed in earlier grades when implemented with instructional support mechanisms tailored toward the educational needs of retained students.”

Through the North Carolina Public Schools Statistical Profile, we have data on racial/ethnic school composition and retention rates of traditional public schools. We do not have data on which students at these schools are being retained. This blog post highlights an important relationship between racial/ethnic school composition and rates of retention within these schools. No claims can be made, specifically, about which students (race/sex) at these schools are being retained.

Why are students held back?

There are multiple reasons why students may be held back. Some students are asked to repeat a grade for behavioral reasons. Others are asked to repeat a grade because they did not meet grade-level standards in reading or math.

In 1996, North Carolina implemented a state-wide school improvement plan called the ABCs of Accountability Model. The plan required testing students in grades 3-8 at the end of the year in reading and math. In the early 2000s, students in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade who failed these exams were retained.

During the 2019-20 school year in North Carolina, 24,712 K-12 students retained (1.8%) even when end-of-grade exams were not administered, due to COVID-19.  This meant that students could not be held back given their performance on end-of-grade exams in the 2019-20 school year.

Retention by race/ethnicity

A recent Chalkbeat piece noted that “Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are disproportionately held back” across the country. The most recent data suggest that this may be true in North Carolina public schools.

During the 2019-20 school year, Northampton (5.2%), Hertford (4.2%) and Martin (3.7%) counties had the highest rates of retention.

Both Hertford (77.8%) and Northampton (79.6%), were among the counties with the highest proportion of Black students in the state during the 2019-20 school year, along with Bertie (79.6%) and Washington Counties (79%).

In North Carolina, counties with predominantly Hispanic student populations do not show the same propensity for high rates of retention.

In the 2019-20 school year, Duplin (42.5%), Sampson (38.8%), Lee (38%) and Montgomery (35.4%) counties had the highest proportion of Hispanic students in North Carolina. All four counties, besides Duplin, had retention rates below the 2019-20 school year state average of 1.8%.

Where in North Carolina do we see the most grade retention post-pandemic?

Across the state, rates of retention increased in the 2020-21 school year.

Although grade retention rates increased overall in North Carolina, post-pandemic, they are not equally distributed across the state.

In the 2020-21 school year we see the highest rates of retention in: Northampton (10.8%), Wilson (11.2%) and Graham (14%) counties.

In the 2021-22 school year, we see the highest rates of grade retention in: Northampton (10.1%), Warren (9.6%) and Vance (8.2%) counties.

Vance, Warren and Northampton Counties had some of the largest percentages of Black students in the 2021-22 school year. This trend remains consistent with pre-pandemic patterns of predominantly Black schools having higher rates of retention. Northampton County has remained in the top three counties with the highest rates of retention since the 2018 school year.

Almost all counties that have been in the top three for rates of retention from the 2018-19 to the 2021-22 school year are in the Northeastern part of North Carolina, historically and contemporaneously the region of the state with the highest concentration of Black residents. The one exception is Graham County, in the far western part of the state, which has among the lowest concentration of Black students, but the highest concentration of American Indian students.

In the 2020-21 school year, Graham County was in the top three counties for rates of retention and had the 4th largest proportion of American Indian students enrolled in the state at 15.9%, behind Scotland (16%) Swain (20.5%) and Robeson (40.9%) counties. American Indian students experienced the largest increase in rates of chronic absenteeism among all racial/ethnic groups in the 2020-21 school year.

Counties with higher proportions of Black students have experienced disproportionately higher rates of grade retention pre- and post-pandemic. These trends are concerning considering the lack of evidence that retention benefits students who are in need of academic intervention and because retention may be a mechanism through which racial inequality in educational attainment is perpetuated, specifically for Black students in North Carolina public schools. 

Carolina Demography is an applied demography group located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Emma Marshall

Emma Marshall is a research analyst at Carolina Demography.