Holding immigrant children back a grade may improve academic success

University Park, Pa. — Children of immigrants often must overcome obstacles in order to achieve academic success, but research conducted by Suet-ling Pong, professor of sociology, and educational theory and policy in Penn State's College of Education, reveals that in some regions of the world, immigrant children actually perform better than their native classmates.

In a recent study, Pong observed that Latino students who migrate to the United States are more likely to underachieve than their native American classmates. While only 29 percent of the Latino immigrant children repeat a grade in American high schools, they are more likely than the non-repeaters to drop out of school. However, if they do stay in school, their academic performance improves after being held back.

For comparison, Pong studied the learning patterns of children who migrated with their families from mainland China to Hong Kong -- a region that similarly sees a steady immigration stream. Supported by a Fulbright scholarship for this research, Pong found that the mainland students actually outperform native Hong Kong students in every major subject except one. English is the only subject in which the mainland students lag  --no surprise since Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997.

So why do children who move from mainland China to Hong Kong perform better than Latino students migrating to the U.S.?

Pong noted that the mainland students who enter Hong Kong classrooms are generally older than their new classmates. Redshirting -- the practice of delaying a child’s entrance in order to improve their academic competence -- is practiced widely in mainland China.

“In the U.S., educators often assume that holding a child back hurts the child’s academic progress,” noted Pong. “We need to re-examine this assumption for immigrant children, especially those coming from countries with a less advanced curriculum than the U.S.”

Pong reported her findings in an article published recently in the journal Educational Research and Evaluation.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017