I hear parents and teachers talk about grade retention,or repeating a grade, all the time.
"The school says my son needs to repeat first grade".
"I think we should retain Jacob, and he will have time to mature".
"I want to give my daughter one more year to catch up, and the school says no".
Retention has been around forever. And the reasoning behind grade retention makes sense. Parents want the best for their children, and hope that if their child has another chance to master the material, he can catch up. Parents of struggling students feel anxiety about promotion to the next grade, knowing that the expectations will be higher and the work harder.
Often, it's the teachers who want a student to repeat a grade. They might think, Emma has struggled to learn things with her peers, but with a repeat of the curriculum, I know she can do it. Or the teacher is concerned about immaturity and behavior and wants to give the child a chance to mature before moving to the next grade.
Several states have mandatory retention policies for children who aren't performing well enough on standardized tests. The reason given is often that if teachers haven't taught students to read or do math well enough, they can't just move the students on to the next grade. The policies are usually written to discourage "social promotion" in which students move on to the next grade just because of their age.
There are many reasons people want to hold a child back. But there is also a LOT of research on the topic. Let's take a look at what the experts have to say.
1. Does it work? Does grade retention help kids catch up?
A lot of researchers have asked this question. There have been studies, more studies and studies of the studies. The overwhelming majority have found that retaining students offers no benefit or has a negative impact on school achievement.
A study measuring reading progress over many years found no difference between retained students and "matched" students who went on to the next grade. Another study looked at long term outcomes in reading and mathematics for students retained in Kindergarten and found no benefit. Another study looked at academic achievement of retained students over time and compared them to students who were recommended for retention but were promoted. The study found no difference between the groups.
The research is not completely one-sided. There are studies that support retention, although they are noticeably fewer in number. One such study found positive effects on reading for retained students 1-2 years after retention.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends against retention, citing the extensive research finding it ineffective and the associations with negative long term outcomes.
2. What are the social-emotional implications?
Children who are retained are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Some studies have found grade retention to be the most powerful predictor of dropping out of high school.
Teachers who have recommended retaining a student may see some immediate success and not know that ten years down the line the student has dropped out of high school. The teacher thinks she has made the right call, and grade retention continues.
When students were asked to rank stressful life events, a majority of students considered grade retention second only to the death of a parent. A group of sixth grade students ranked retention AS stressful as the death of a parent.
This point really stuck with me. If grade retention is in the same ballpark as the death of a parent, then we need to be a lot more careful in deciding to retain students, and in talking about retention. You know how teachers or parents sometimes joke about failing a grade? No wonder the kids weren't laughing.
3. What does retention cost?
The average cost to send a student to public school for a year is north of $10,000 -- and a LOT more in some states. An extra year of school represents quite a significant cost to a school district. There is a lot a school could do to help students catch up that costs less than an extra year of school.
Thinking about how retention money could be used more effectively is important, because if children are struggling we don't want to promote them without help.
The research on grade retention is predominately negative. So now what?
Teachers and schools are not like they were 50 years ago. One of the most striking differences is that we are able to pinpoint a student's area of difficulty, and -- in an ideal world -- match that need with a research-based intervention and a teacher who has the time and training to implement the intervention effectively.
The reality is that many schools are scrambling for resources -- time and money, to implement these kinds of interventions in reading, mathematics, behavior and more. If there were a magic button we could push and transfer that retention cost to things we know work? It could be a game changer.
"But my Billy was held back, and it saved him!"
I don't think that there should be hard and fast rules about retention. Every child and situation is unique, and retention may be just the right choice for a particular child. Just this week, my father reminded me that he repeated the fourth grade after a long illness. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law, and more importantly -- has been a supportive and caring father and grandfather.
I don't mean to tell you what to do with your child. I just want everyone to know what is at stake and consider the research before making a decision.
If a school or teacher is suggesting your child should repeat a grade and you disagree, Wrightslaw has excellent resources and sample letters to help you advocate for your child.