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Report: NC school districts that serve mostly Black children hold more students back a grade

Allison Shelley for EDU Images via Flickr
Allison Shelley for the Alliance

A recent report by Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill found that North Carolina public school districts with high proportions of Black students are more likely to hold students back a grade.

Carolina Demography research analyst Emma Marshall identified the trend, while working on her master’s thesis on the same topic.

She mapped out which counties' school districts retained the highest percentage of students between 2018 and 2022, and then compared that to the racial composition of each county. In counties that have multiple traditional public-school districts, the retention rates are aggregated across the county.

“All of these counties [with the highest retention rates] are predominantly Black and pretty rural, in the northeastern part of the state — and also, all of these counties in the schools have very, very low end-of-grade reading and math test scores,” Marshall said.

This map shows the percentage of students retained in traditional public schools in each county in 2020.
Carolina Demography
UNC-Chapel Hill
This map shows the percentage of students retained in traditional public schools in each county in 2020. Data are aggregated in counties that have multiple school districts.

The primary reason students are held back is because they performed poorly on end-of-grade exams. But Marshall’s analysis found that for Black students, the racial composition of their school was also associated with whether they would be retained. Schools that serve a student population that is majority Black were also more likely to retain students.

“School composition and quality explain a lot of why retention rates are high. So it not only has to do with a student’s performance, but the performance of the school,” Marshall explained.

Research shows that being held back a grade is associated with dropping out of high school and lower wages throughout life.

School districts in rural counties in the northeastern part of North Carolina — like Northampton and Hertford County Schools — retained the highest rates of students. More than three-quarters of students in those two school districts are Black.

In 2018 alone, Northampton County Schools retained more than a third of all its students. It routinely ranks in the top five school districts for student retention, but that year, its retention rate was a strong outlier.

“I saw and calculated that 35% of students in that district that year were retained, which is staggering,” Marshall says. She confirmed the retention rate with the school district to check her calculation.

Marshall says she found this trend while looking to see if retention rates rose after the pandemic began.

“That led me to the trend that I actually found which is that, no, these retention trends have been pervasive in these counties all along,” Marshall said. “This is a trend that will continue if nothing happens in these counties.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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