Rethinking Grade Retention

When a child struggles with “grade-level appropriate” material, he is often retained in the same grade to take a second stab at the material. The name given to this practice by schoolchildren—staying back—shows that even the youngest scholars know how regressive this practice can be. In one poll sixth graders rated grade retention as the most stressful life event, followed by the loss of a parent and going blind.

Yet after decades of research that has failed to support the efficacy of retention, The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports that the practice has increased during the past 25 years. And kids with learning disabilities and attention issues are among those most likely to be held back.

While students who repeat a grade may do better the year they’re exposed to the material for a second time, any educational gains are lost in subsequent years. Overall, the large body of research indicates that grade retention in elementary school has a negative impact on all areas of achievement (reading, math and language) as well as social and emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

The effect is even more striking when measured at the secondary level, where students who were retained or had delayed kindergarten entry are more likely to drop out of school.

 Better Alternatives

Since students with learning differences are more vulnerable on both academic and social/emotional levels, how can parents and educators foster a proactive learning curve without retention or gratuitous social promotion? Following is an array of strategies to discourage retention.

  • Stay involved in your child’s school and education through frequent contact with teachers, supervision of homework, etc.
  • Work with your school to adopt age-appropriate and culturally sensitive instructional strategies that accelerate progress in all classrooms
  • Promote the value of early developmental programs and preschool programs to enhance language and social skills
  • Request systematic assessments, including continuous progress monitoring to enable ongoing modification of instructional efforts
  • Insist on effective early reading programs and consistent reinforcement.
  • Utilize effective school-based mental health programs
  • Identify specific learning or behavior problems, work with the school team to design and evaluate interventions to address those problems
  • Get up to speed on effective behavior management and cognitive behavior modification strategies to reduce behavior problems
  • Promote extended year, extended day, and summer school programs that focus on facilitating the development of academic skills
  • Implement tutoring and mentoring programs with peer, cross-age, or adult tutors
  • Stay actively involved with schools, district decisions, boards of education, and all systems affecting educational programs.

With the cooperation of parents, educators, policymakers, and students, the ineffective strategies of retention and social promotion can be replaced with educational systems that meet the diverse needs of all students.