What Does the Research Tell Us?
The 2003 “Position Statement on Student Grade Retention,” from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) states that the majority of studies conducted over the past four decades on the effectiveness of grade retention fail to support its efficacy in remediating academic deficits. When compared to promoted students of the same age, retained students achieve at a slower rate and the achievement gains associated with retention often fade within just a few years after the repeated grade. In fact, many students who experience retention are traumatized and are far more likely to drop out of school as a result.
So if the research shows that students are not better off as a result of retention, why is this practice of retaining students actually gaining in popularity? Some would suggest that high-stakes standardized testing and the introduction of Common Core standards is to blame. There may be increased pressure on teachers to hold back students who have not met grade-level expectations. Behavior problems can also be a reason for retention, but let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. If your child is bright, but is not progressing as quickly as his peers, might he begin to act out to either get more attention or divert attention away from his learning challenges? When behavior is the reason for concern, I often suggest looking at when the behavior problems began and if they are isolated to one subject/teacher/classroom. If you can isolate the behavior problems to certain set of circumstances, it is likely that your child is simply acting out because he is getting frustrated and/or is not getting what he needs to succeed. Retention, in this case, will only exacerbate the problem.
For most children who have received adequate instruction, but are not yet reading at grade-level, repeating the same ineffective teaching methods will only reinforce for your child the idea that he or she is “stupid”. The psychological effects can be quite damaging. In fact, failing a grade was rated the third most stressful event imagined in a student's life; losing a parent and going blind were rated one and two (Shepard & Smith, 1990). For most struggling readers, progress will only be made if they are provided with multi-sensory, evidence-based, small-group instruction.
Andrew’s Story of Success
My very bright son, Andrew, was not reading in first grade, but most of his classmates were. He loved school, but as the year went on, his passion for learning started to diminish. During silent reading time, his teachers would let him “play”, which only caused him to feel more different and isolated. When I began to inquire as to why he was not progressing, his teachers initially dismissed my concerns and told me that he just needed more time. However, as time progressed, they too began to grow concerned. At first, my son was pulled out of the classroom five times per week to read with a general education teacher. Andrew was very well aware that he was one of the only students getting this extra reading support. So, the fact that he was making little to no progress despite getting extra help only reinforced his feelings of frustration and self-doubt.
Before even contemplating retention, we decided to have our son tested, which only confirmed our suspicions that he is dyslexic. In fact, not only is he dyslexic, but he is also considered gifted. Consider for a minute what a child must say to himself if and when he is retained. Since many measure intelligence by one's ability to read, do you think a gifted but struggling reader would see himself as capable of greatness, if held back a year? Probably not. Simply retaining Andrew would also not have provided him with access to the one-on-one specialized instruction he needed to make effective progress. Fortunately, we were able to place him in a specialized school for children with language-based learning differences and provided him with evidence-based instruction. After spending two years at the Landmark School, Andrew transitioned to our local charter school, is reading above grade-level and loves school again!
Possible Alternate Outcome…
Now, let’s take my son Andrew’s story and imagine the outcome if he had been held back a year in school instead of advancing with his peers. In this scenario, Andrew finishes first grade. Most his friends are now reading, but Andrew is told that he will have to repeat the same grade that he just struggled to complete. He begins the new school year and sees his friends advance to the next grade and meet their new teachers. Andrew, however, finds himself in familiar territory, already feeling defeated. As Andrew navigates the year, he watches his new classmates begin to make progress with their reading. Andrew, however, continues to struggle and makes little advancement. Not only is he forced to watch a new group of students sail past him in reading, but he has to accept the fact that he is still struggling himself. Do you think he would continue to feel motivated to try? Do you think holding him back would better prepare him for the following school year or would it just cause him to second guess himself and doubt that academic success is even possible for him?
In the alternate outcome above, retention would likely not have solved the problem. In fact, it probably would have only made it worse. Retention can actually prevent academic success, can further self-doubt and may even cause your child to give up and drop out of school at some point. Therefore, it is vitally important that you determine the cause for the lack of progress and not just assume that a child will benefit from more of the same.
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. Is your child spending adequate time on homework?
2. Does your child have a calm, quiet place to work?
3. Is your child getting proper nutrition and sufficient sleep?
4. Are you regularly communicating with your child’s teachers?
5. Is your child struggling in all academic areas or is he/she primarily struggling to read/write/spell?
6. Have you had your child tested for a learning disability/difference?
Questions to Ask the School
1. Ask which intervention(s) your child is receiving and in addition, the studies that show its effectiveness.
2. Request a copy of the progress-monitoring graph after each assessment to determine if the intervention is effective.
3. If you have given the current intervention some time to work and you are not seeing progress, ask whether other interventions are available.
4. If your child were to be retained, ask if the instruction/interventions would be different. If your child is not making effective progress and would continue to receive the same instruction or similar interventions, if retained, chances are that “doing it over again” would have little positive impact but could, in fact, negatively affect your child’s self-image and academic future.
5. It is your right to request at any time that your child be evaluated for special education.
Each school district has it’s own retention policy so consult with your school district to find out how it is addressed. If you feel you must retain your child in school, remember that it rarely ends up being a positive experience after fourth grade, so the younger, the better. Make sure that you request that your child be evaluated so you can better understand the reasons for your child’s academic, behavioral or emotional difficulties.
Alternatives to Grade Retention
If you are opposed to or conflicted about grade retention, consider the following… school testing and/or an independent evaluation may reveal areas of weakness that will give you and your teacher much needed information. Summer school can offer a boost or may allow your child the opportunity to catch up without the need to stay back a year. As well, your child may benefit from receiving counseling so he can feel comfortable sharing his thoughts or frustrations with a caring adult. Finally, make sure that you open the lines of communication with your child. Get a sense from him as to why the problems exist and make him part of the solution. If your child is feeling out-of-control or powerless, it can cause your child to decline further. However, if you involve your child in the process and let him know that his feelings matter to you, you will give him an opportunity to feel more in control and valued.