Grade Retention is a Failing Solution for Children

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

It had been a bad school year by all accounts for the 3rd grade boy. He had consistently struggled in reading and was getting further behind his classmates. His behavior in the classroom was getting worse as he would yell at the teacher and rip up his work. This resulted in frequently being sent to the principal’s office or having to go see the guidance counselor. His teachers and the principal all felt that the boy would need to repeat 3rd grade. The boy’s parents did not like the idea of their son being held back a year but felt like there were no other alternatives.

This situation plays out in many schools during the spring as decisions are made on promoting students to the next grade. For most students, this decision is an easy one. However for students like the 3rd grade boy, the decision is more difficult. In general, grade retention or repeating a grade is an ineffective strategy if the goal is long term academic success.

Initially, repeating a grade appears to be effective. Most students will do better academically the year they repeat a grade as their math and reading scores tend to rise and meet academic standards. However within a few years, all of the academic gains are erased and those students are struggling again. As teenagers, students who have been retained are at higher risk of dropping out of school.

In addition to the poor academic outcomes, there is the social impact on students. Many students who have been retained report that it is one of the most stressful events they have experienced. This is due to students knowing that they have been left behind as their friends go on to the next grade and then having to make new friends. Later on, the retained students tend to have more issues with their behavior in school and poorer peer relationships.

If repeating a grade is not effective, the question becomes what to do with students like the third grade boy? Often the feeling is that the choice is to either have students repeat the grade or promote them to the next one. Promoting students to the next grade when they have not mastered the academic content of the current grade is called social promotion. Social promotion is also ineffective as students who are behind entering a grade typically fall even further behind due to not being ready for the academic expectations of the next grade.

The solution to this dilemma is for schools to employ academic interventions that occur early and often. The goal is to focus the school’s various resources to ensure students master the basic skills needed to succeed at the next grade level. Most schools screen all students regarding their academic skills several times during the school year. For students who are falling behind academically, there are a range of interventions that can be used. These interventions should be regularly monitored and have adjustments made if students continue to struggle.

If these interventions are not enough, students should be assessed to see if there is an underlying disability. Those students who have disabilities will qualify for special education services where even more resources can be used to help students achieve.

The role of parents is to take an active role in ensuring that the school is addressing their child’s needs. This can be accomplished by being in regular contact with a child’s teacher and actively addressing concerns that are seen at home. In addition, parents need to ask specifically what is being done to address these concerns and what sort of progress is being made on those skills. If parents take these steps throughout the school year, it is unlikely the choice between repeating a grade and social promotion will need to be made.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on March 16, 2014.

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