Students held back were at high risk of dropping out.
This spring, Domonique Crosby graduated from George Washington Carver High School in New Orleans. When she got her diploma, she was 20 years old. But she wasn't the only person in her class who was older than a typical high school student. The Education Research Alliance at Tulane University says around one-third of K-12 students in Louisiana repeat at least one grade. In New Orleans, the number is even higher: 40 percent of students have been held back at least once.
Like thousands of other students, Domonique failed a standardized test called the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) in fourth grade and she was automatically held back.
Domonique says it's hard being an overage student, and at times she just wanted to drop out. In fact, students who are held back are at a high risk of dropping out.
"I was like, 'Why am I still in school if I'm older than everybody else?'" she says. "You know, school wasn't for me no more."
It used to be that schools in Louisiana passed students along to the next grade even when the students were failing. That's called social promotion. But Louisiana schools reversed course after Hurricane Katrina. They switched to mandatory retention. That meant teachers had to hold back students who weren't passing the LEAP test in fourth or eighth grades. Seventeen states have similar policies that require holding back students in the third grade if they don't pass a standardized reading test. In Louisiana, LEAP testing and mandatory retention resulted in thousands of students being forced to repeat grades.
Many of those students who were held back are older now, and in high school.
Journalist Katy Reckdahl took notice.
She started calling state education officials and asking, "Why are there so many kids held back? What's going on here?'"
She thought maybe it was an effect from Hurricane Katrina. "But then when I got the numbers for New Orleans and for Louisiana - and you know a lot of Louisiana was not affected by Katrina - New Orleans was a little bit worse but Louisiana was still really bad on retention," she says. "And as I talked to more people it was clear that it was an effect of standardized testing."
Reckdahl recently wrote about overage students in Louisiana and investigated the impacts of retention for The Hechinger Report. So many students have been held back due to mandatory retention that in 2017 the Louisiana State Legislature decided to end it. Now, schools offer summer classes, online classes and help from specialized teachers as alternatives for students who don't pass the LEAP test.
Reckdahl says there's one big takeaway from the state's "experiment" with retention.
"It's not enough to scare a kid into performing," she says. "You can't just say I'm going to hold you back."