Are there any circumstances in which a student would benefit from repeating her current grade? According to most research, the overwhelming answer is a resounding NO! And yet the practice is regaining popularity throughout the U.S.
If your child’s teacher recommends holding her back in her current grade, what should you do? What are your choices? What are your rights?
Even a cursory look at studies on grade retention shows that having students repeat a grade level for a second school year in a row is rarely effective. In a 1990 review of the historical research on the topic, psychologist Shane Jimerson found that the data show few differences in outcomes between retained and promoted students. Moreover, where differences were noted, they favored the promoted student in measures of academic achievement and social and emotional maturity.
Why then do statistics suggest that 10 to 20 percent of students will be retained over the course of their school career? Why is grade retention twice as likely with boys than with girls — and why are black students held back twice as often as white peers, according to 2006 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics? While such facts call into question the fairness and effectiveness of grade retention, these practices continue in many public schools.
A study around standardized tests, conducted by researchers Melissa Roderick and Jenny Nagaoka, reviewed the use of test scores in promotion decisions among elementary school (third grade) and middle school (sixth and eighth grade) students in Chicago public schools. When the researchers compared students who were held back a grade level with those who had just made the standardized tests scoring cutoff for promotion, the retained group showed some initial growth (particularly at younger ages) for a mere two years after being held back, by which point their achievement was comparable to peers who had been promoted.
In addition, research published by Jane L. David shows that the older a student is at the time of grade retention, the more likely she is to drop out of school. It would seem that no matter what criteria teachers and administrators use, grade retention does not help students attain higher levels of academic achievement than promotion.
Who decides whether a student will have to repeat a grade (and what measures are used to make that decision) are complicated issues that are determined on a state-by-state, and even district-by-district, level. Before the era of high-stakes testing, most schools relied heavily on teacher recommendations, which were admittedly subjective. Today, though, many schools base their decision, entirely or partially, on students’ annual state assessment scores. While test scores may give the appearance of objectivity, in truth, they provide a snapshot of a child’s performance—and school readiness—on a single measure.
What, then, is the answer? No matter the reason for a student’s failure to thrive academically, asking students to learn the same curriculum for a second school year in a row—and encounter the same method of instruction or teaching approach—is an unlikely way to help students who are failing in terms of academic achievement. Other means are necessary to support a child who is underperforming.
Some districts mandate summer school for children who don’t meet grade-level standards during the school year, while others provide before- and after-school programs or tutoring. Still others may adopt new reading and writing strategies for these children.
One district in the state of New York explored the idea of looping kindergarten and first grade students—that is, combining grades and keeping children with the same teacher for two consecutive years—after a catastrophic storm caused so many absences that a large percentage of children could not meet their end-of-year benchmarks. This type of creative solution required the cooperation of teachers, parents, and administrators to aid children traumatized by a natural event that affected the entire community—especially the students’ learning.
As a parent, you may be aware of personal reasons contributing to your child’s academic struggles, and you should share these with the school immediately. Have there been issues at home, such as illness, divorce, or a new child or marriage? Each of these can create a situation that may affect academic achievement or delay social and emotional growth. Moreover, each underlying cause may require a different type of intervention.
If you need help determining the causes of your child’s difficulties, start by consulting with the school psychologist, social worker, or learning specialist. Ask your doctor or pediatrician to arrange for hearing and eye exams as part of a full physical to rule out any physical issues. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers online resources to parents to learn about “effective strategies, greater collaboration, and improved outcomes on a wide range of psychological, social/emotional, and academic issues.”
To learn what criteria your child’s school is using as the basis to recommend repeating a grade, begin with the principal, district superintendent, or your state board of education. If you believe that your child is being held back unfairly, you may want to consult with a lawyer who specializes in education through websites such as the Education Law Association.
No matter the ultimate decision, the most important thing to remember is that you are your child’s best advocate, and ongoing communication with school professionals is the most effective strategy to ensure that she is happy and thriving academically.
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