Education Myths: Grade Retention by: Alice Wellborn

Are any of your children at risk of being retained in grade this year?

Students are retained for all sorts of reasons: poor grades, skill deficits, poor attendance, and discipline problems.  Parents, teachers, school administrators, legislators, and members of the general public often hold the strong belief that the best way to ensure that students are getting a good education is to retain those who don’t meet grade level standards.  And that’s the myth – that a student who hasn’t met grade level standards can be “fixed” by repeating the grade.  That simply is not true.

Many of the things we all “know” about education are not based in fact and are not supported by current research.  Grade retention is one of those things.  Hundreds of research studies show that grade retention is not an effective academic intervention.  In fact, retention is harmful to many children.  Here are some of the research findings:

Retention does not improve academic achievement over time.  Children who are retained in elementary school generally do better the following year (when they are reviewing what they learned the previous year), and maybe for a year or two after that.  But then their academic achievement falls to the same level, or even lower, than other children who also struggle, but who have never been retained.

Retaining children in kindergarten or first grade is not more effective than retention in later grades.  “The gift of time” is not much of a gift!  Most of the children who are referred to me for academic problems in later grades have already been retained in kindergarten or first grade.  Retention was not an effective intervention for these students.

Children who have been retained are at a much higher risk of having behavior problems, substance abuse issues, low self-esteem, poor motivation, and a negative attitude towards school.  These issues often don’t surface until middle school or high school, when being “old for grade” is related to many social and behavior problems.

Grade retention is the most powerful predictor of who will drop out of high school.  One retention, even in the early elementary grades, greatly increases the chances that a student will drop out.  If a student is retained twice, the likelihood of dropping out is almost 100%.

The students who are most likely to be retained are poor children, minorities, males, and children with disabilities.  These are often the same students who already have two strikes against them in school.

Retention is extremely expensive, because the school system pays for an extra year of school for every child who repeats a grade.  That’s a price tag of over $10,000 per child, on average across the country, and thousands of children are retained each year.  Wouldn’t it make sense to spend those millions of dollars on academic programs and materials that are research-based and effective?

In my 35 years of working in public schools, I have known only three students who seemed to benefit from grade retention over the long term.  All three were smart and had good social skills.  All three had just been identified with a learning disability and were starting to receive services.  Two of the children had just experienced a family trauma (death of a parent, divorce) that significantly affected their ability to concentrate on school work.

Teachers often don’t realize that retention is such an ineffective strategy.  This is because teachers usually view the results of retention during the year or two in which it seems to make a positive difference.  They don’t see children three or four years down the road, or in high school.  They don’t know about the kids who drop out.

In most states, parents do not have a legal right to make the decision about grade retention.  Parents can certainly ask questions, though, and here are some suggested ones:

“If my child repeats the grade, what will be different the second time around?”

“If my child repeats the grade, will he be on grade level at the end of the retention year, and then never fall off grade level again?”

“Does my child have the confidence and the support, at home and at school, to handle the embarrassment and emotional distress that often accompany retention?”

Parents of children who are at-risk for retention should talk with teachers and administrators to develop an effective plan of action for the summer, including tutoring and summer remediation programs.  If attendance and homework grades were part of the problem, families have to work to strengthen and follow their routines (morning, evening, and homework).  If the teachers have medical or mental health concerns, the summer is a great time for parents to make appointments and follow up on those issues.  And if the teacher suspects a learning problem, ask her to start the process to have your child evaluated at school for special services.

If grade retention is an issue in your family, be careful!  Read the research.  Don’t make assumptions.  Ask questions.  And then make the best decision for your individual child.

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