I use age and current grade (variable GRADEATT) from the 2000 U.S. census obtained from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS; see Ruggles et al. 2004
) to create a measure of prior grade retention.3
Delayed progress through school (also known as age-grade retardation
) is a widely used proxy for prior grade retention (Hauser 2001
; Hauser, Pager, and Simmons 2001
). A strong correlation between being older than one’s classmates and having been retained a grade in the past can be documented using the October supplements to the Current Population Survey, which has more precise questions about childhood grade retention (although, unfortunately, a much smaller sample size). For example, for 8th grade students in October 2004, 2% of the 13-year-olds had ever been held back a year in school, but 31% of the 14-year-olds had ever been held back (author’s tabulation). The census survey, which occurs 6 months later in the school year (April rather than October), requires a later age cutoff, so I use age 15 as the cutoff age at which 8th graders are considered too old to be making normal progress through school.4
The 2000 U.S. census question about current grade for students collapsed Grades 1–4 into a single category and Grades 5–8 into a single category. Students attending Grades 1–4 can be identified as over-age only if they are too old to be in the 4th grade (i.e., at least age 11), and students attending Grades 5–8 can be identified as over-age only if they are too old to be in the 8th grade (i.e., at least age 15).
The 2000 census did not include a question about the number of times respondents had been married, so married coresident couples cannot, in general, be distinguished from remarried couples. This problem is mitigated somewhat by the ability of the census to distinguish the head of household’s “own children” from the head of household’s “stepchildren.” The census provides only a cross-sectional snapshot of family structure, which fails to capture the ways in which family changes over time can affect children (Wolfe et al. 1996
; Wu and Martinson 1993
Children’s tenure within their current family structure can be reasonably assured by limiting the analysis to children and parents who all have at least five years of coresidential stability. If the child and both parents all lived at the same address in 2000 as they did five years earlier, it is likely that the family structure at the time of the 2000 census was also in place five years earlier. For children living in group quarters, five years at the same address indicates long-term residence rather than a brief stay at a shelter. Five years with the same family structure at the same address is long enough to imply that the child’s primary school career through Grade 4, and most of the child’s primary school career through Grade 8, are likely to have been undertaken within the family structure reported to the census in 2000. For children living with single parents, five-year residential stability of child and parent is a bit more ambiguous because we do not know whether or when a partner or ex-spouse moved out of the home.
Unmarried partners were first distinguished from roommates in the 1990 census. For the 2000 census, the Census Bureau changed its long-standing policy by counting self-reported same-sex “married” couples as unmarried partners (Rosenfeld and Kim 2005
; U.S. Census Bureau 2001
). The recoded “married” couples accounted for roughly one-half of the same-sex partners and 80% of the children of same-sex couples in the 2000 census. The inclusion of the self-reported “married” couples among the same-sex partnered couples is thought to yield a more accurate population count of same-sex couples (U.S. Census Bureau 2001
; but see also O’Connell and Gooding 2006
In the 2000 U.S. census same-sex couple cohabiting data, self-reported married and self-reported partnered same-sex couples differ in some systematic ways. Not only do the self-reported same-sex married couples have more children than the self-reported same-sex partnered couples, but the self-reported same-sex married couples are more similar to heterosexual married couples along several other key dimensions. For example, the self-reported same-sex married couples are more likely to be white, less likely to be geographically mobile, and more likely to have high incomes (Rosenfeld and Kim 2005
). Because the population of same-sex partners in the 2000 census is composed of these two rather distinctive subgroups, every table that includes statistics on same-sex couples and their children includes alternative versions of the same statistics calculated omitting the couples (and their children) whose dual marital status was recoded to indicate whether the results are robust with respect to this underlying diversity.
In the census data, all married couples are heterosexual married couples by Census Bureau definition. Since the 2000 census, however, several U.S. states and other countries have acknowledged married same-sex couples, so I add the modifier “heterosexual” to “married couples” for clarity.
First-Order Predictors of Childhood Grade Retention
Because denominator school populations cover four years (Grades 1–4, Grades 5–8), but the students who can be identified as over-age for their grade come only from the last grade of each four-year span (Grades 4 and 8),5
the implied grade retention rate is four times higher than the observed grade retention rate. shows both the observed grade retention rate and the implied grade retention rate for primary school students using weighted data from the 2000 census.
suggests that childhood grade retention is correlated with family type. Children of heterosexual married couples had the lowest implied rate of grade retention: 6.8%. Children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers had grade retention rates of 9.5% and 9.7%, respectively. Children of heterosexual cohabiting parents had a grade retention rate of 11.7%, while children of single parents had grade retention rates between 11.1% and 12.6%
The differences in childhood grade retention between all types of non–group quarters households were dwarfed by the high rates of grade retention of children living in group quarters. According to , children living in group homes, many of them awaiting adoption or foster parents, had an implied grade retention rate of 34.4%. Children who were incarcerated had a grade-retention rate of 78.0%. Later in this article, I show that the enormous difference in grade retention between children raised in families and children living in group quarters remains even after individual-level student disabilities are accounted for.
One way to gauge the advantage of living with families is to note that adopted children (10.6% grade retention) who spent the five years prior to the census living with their adoptive parents and foster children (20.6% grade retention) with five years of residential stability performed considerably better than children who spent the same five years living at a single group-quarters address (34.4% grade retention for noninmates). The performance hierarchy that favors own children, and then (in declining order of school performance) adopted children, foster children, and children in group quarters, confirms the long-standing research finding that children do best when living with parents who make a long-term commitment to the children’s development (Bartholet 1999
). Selection bias (wherein the children with the most severe disabilities or children who have suffered the worst abuse are the least likely to be adopted) must also play a role, which unfortunately cannot be quantified with these data.
The rest of shows implied grade retention along several other dimensions. Asian American children had the lowest rates of grade retention, and non-Hispanic black children had the highest. Girls were less likely to be held back in the primary grades than boys. Suburban schools had lower rates of grade retention than city schools, which in turn were lower than rural schools. Household SES was a crucial predictor of childhood school performance. In households with income less than $25,000, 12.6% of the primary school students were held back, compared with only 5.3% for children in households with incomes more than $100,000. Householder’s education had an even stronger effect on children’s progress through school: parents who had less than a high school diploma had primary school children who were retained 14.3% of the time, whereas householders with college degrees had children who were retained only 4.4% of the time.
shows that the strongest factor in making normal progress through elementary school is living with a family rather than living in group quarters. For children living in a family, whether the family is headed by a heterosexual married couple or by some less-traditional parenting arrangement, the second–most-important factor in childhood progress through school appears to be parental educational attainment.
Consistency With Prior Findings
Although the U.S. census data have some limits for the purpose of studying grade retention, the first-order predictors of grade retention from the census are reassuringly consistent with the published research on normal progress through school using other sources. The gender and racial gradients for normal progress through school in are similar to the gender and racial gradients found by the Census Bureau in its analysis of progress through school using data from the educational supplement of the October Current Population Surveys (CPS; Heubert and Hauser 1999
:147–54; Jamieson, Curry, and Martinez 2001
:3, Table A; Shin 2005
:7, Table C). ’s gradients of normal progress through school (versus grade retention) by family type (specifically, single parent versus married parents), household income, student gender, and parental education are entirely consistent with the broad existing literature on grade retention from other data sources, including the following: Dawson’s (1991)
study using the 1988 National Health Interview Survey, Tillman et al.’s (2006)
study using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Moller et al.’s (2006
:171) results using the National Educational Longitudinal Study, Bianchi’s (1984)
analysis of the CPS, and Zill’s (1996)
analysis of the National Household Education Survey. I show (in an extended analysis available on request) that the multivariate analysis of grade retention from this same literature is consistent with my multivariate analysis of grade retention using U.S. census data. In all the studies, family SES plays a crucial role in shaping children’s educational experience.
Socioeconomic Status by Family Type
shows that educational attainment for gays and lesbians was higher than average at 13.6 years (i.e., 1.6 years of college) compared with 13.4 years for heterosexual married heads of household. Across family types, gay couples had the highest median household income at $61,000 per household. It should also be noted that men have higher earnings than women, and gay male couples are the only household type that relied on the earnings of two men. The second four family types are all single-parent (i.e., single-income) families, so their household incomes were roughly half as high as the household incomes of the first four family types.
Characteristics of Households With and Without Children
Despite the fact that the cost of becoming parents may be higher for gays and lesbians than for heterosexual couples, shows that gay and lesbian couples who did have children had substantially lower income and educational attainment than gay and lesbian couples in general. Although gay and lesbian cohabiters had relatively high household incomes, gay and lesbian parents had lower SES than heterosexual married parents ($50,000 per household for gay parents compared with $58,000 for heterosexual married parents). Excluding recodes for dual marital status, the income and educational level of gay and lesbian parents was even lower. Among gay and lesbian couples, those with lower incomes are more likely to be raising children.
Not only were heterosexual married parents economically advantaged, but the heterosexual married couples were also racially/ethnically advantaged. Only 22.9% of children of heterosexual married couples were black or Hispanic, whereas 41.6% of children of gay men were black or Hispanic, and this percentage rose to 53.7% when recodes for dual marital status were excluded. The children of lesbians were similarly likely (37.1%) to be black or Hispanic. Never-married mothers were the most likely parenting family type to have black or Hispanic children. The racial/ethnic breakdown of parents was similar to the racial breakdown of children described in . Among heterosexual married heads of household, 22.2% were black or Hispanic, while 40.4% of gay fathers and 36.1% of lesbian mothers were black or Hispanic (not shown in ).6
Among all family types, children of lesbian mothers were the most likely (more than 12%) to be adopted children, stepchildren, or foster children. Because economic disadvantage, minority racial/ethnic status, and experience with the adoption or foster care system are all challenges for children, a careful analysis of the school performance of children of gay and lesbian parents must take these disadvantages into account.