Ask Reading Kingdom: Should Struggling Students Repeat a Grade?

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Years ago, it was common practice to hold students back when they were not doing well in school. As more child centered education took hold, this practice was abandoned. In its place came “social promotion” where a child was moved ahead regardless of school performance.  Now, with the current emphasis on “standards,” grade retention has been making a comeback.

Educators and policymakers have debated for decades about the soundness of this idea (i.e., whether struggling students benefit more from repeating a grade or from moving ahead with their same-age peers). The argument for retention is that a student who could not succeed in the current grade will have an even harder time succeeding in the next grade—as the material becomes more complex. So the answer is retention (without answering the question of how a child who failed last year will now succeed with a second go-round.)

Although solid statistics are hard to come by, estimates of the number of students retained at least once in their school career range from 10 to 20 percent. African-American students are more than twice as likely to be held back as white students, and boys twice as likely as girls (National Center for Education Statistics).

In the past, teacher judgment played a larger role in decisions about individual students. More recently, in the context of high-stakes testing, states and urban districts have begun formalizing and tightening requirements for promotion, often using a single test score on the (questionable) grounds that teachers’ judgments are too subjective.

As commonly occurs with complex social issues, research in this area has yielded contradictory information so that it is difficult to determine whether students fare better with promotion vs. retention. Nevertheless, studies with the strongest research methods compare students who were retained with similar students who were not retained. They ask whether repeating a grade makes a difference in achievement as well as personal and social adjustment over the short run and the long run.

Overall the preponderance of evidence argues that students who repeat a grade are no better off, and are sometimes worse off, than if they had been promoted. Many have concluded that the practice is “an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention.” Some short-term gains have been observed in that the children may do a little better. But within 2-3 years, they have generally lost those gains. Faced with new topics but without any help on the problems that caused them to be held back in the first place, students continue to struggle.  Further, their self-esteem suffers greatly. Unfortunately, the losses are long term, affecting many areas. For example, one major study found that children who repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than kids with similar backgrounds, and 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than siblings in the same family.

A key issue is to realize that a focus on these two options –retention or promotion—represents a narrow and unproductive way of viewing the problem. The key is to figure out what it takes to help failing students catch up.  If we do this, we quickly see that the curriculum is at the core of the problems. For example, national statistics consistently show that 2 out of 3 children are failing to achieve proficiency in reading! This is astounding and shameful. Further, the cause of this is not the children, but the curriculum they are receiving. So repeating the curriculum they did not understand in the first place is unlikely to be helpful. Nevertheless, the traditional phonics curriculum that caused the problems continues to be used—with minor and insignificant variations. Math is even in worse shape—but relative to reading, math is not as highly valued in our nation and so the failure receives little attention.

Hundreds of classroom related issues are examined regularly—class size, use of reinforcements, implementation of high tech devices, shorter teaching periods and on and on. Rarely, if ever, does the curriculum enter the discussion. It is simply assumed that curricula are fine and any failure is due to limitations in the children or the teachers. It is vital this this focus be changed.

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