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The numbers of students being "held back" a grade, known as "grade retention," have tumbled in recent years.

The numbers of students being "held back" a grade, known as "grade retention," have tumbled in recent years, according to a new study by the American Educational Research Association.

But researchers are unsure why, and policy experts continue to disagree on whether it is better to hold kids back, with the attendant stigma — or to move them forward while scrambling to help them catch up.

While the study did not attempt to explain the decline, some speculation centers on efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. By far the largest drop in retention rates occurred among black students, falling from 4.9 percent in 2004 to 2 percent in 2009.

Lead researcher John Robert Warren suggested to the Huffington Post that increased awareness of racial disparities may have led schools to lean hard the other way. "Nothing in this study should suggest that [the decrease in retention rates] is a good or a bad thing," Warren told The Huffington Post.

A parallel study at the University of Minnesota using different data reached similar results last summer, Education Week reported in August. "Retention rates are not tracked annually on a national level and most data that exists is collected through surveys, so the researchers used grade level enrollment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate that retention rates hovered around 2.7 percent from 1995 to 2005. After that, the number of students held back actually began to decline, hitting 1.5 percent in 2009."

The tension between avoiding "social promotion" and avoiding a derailing stigma continues to flummox policymakers. Molly Callister at the Hechinger Report noted both sides of the dilemma in an article last summer, and outlined efforts underway in Los Angeles to reconcile the conflict.

"Some research supports LAUSD’s methods," Callister notes. "Studies have suggested that students held back can be victims of bullying; they also may feel developmentally out of place or psychologically discouraged and often perform worse than their socially promoted peers. Additional studies show that when kids are held back, academic performance even suffers among the student’s classmates."

In a 2010 interview with the Washington Post, President Barack Obama was very critical of social promotion. "This notion that we should just graduate kids because they've reached a certain age and we don't want to embarrass them, despite the fact that they may not be able to read, that is a disservice to students; that's a disservice to parents," Obama said.

One researcher suggested an alternative explanation to the Huffington Post, the idea that better interventions are addressing problems before it's too late. "What we're able to do is grab kids sooner, identify their needs and provide services before gaps in learning get too big to overcome," Britton Schnurr, a school psychologist in upstate New York, said.

“Optimistically," Warren said in a statement announcing the new report, "it also could be the result of earlier research that found only mixed evidence that retention leads to more learning, but consistent evidence that it leads to higher dropout rates."

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