Retaining (or flunking) students who have not mastered the skills and content of a specific grade level in school is not a recommended practice, yet this “solution” keeps popping up—most recently as a legislative initiative. The bill, discussed for the 2014 Unicameral calendar, would force school districts to hold back any student that could not read by the end of third grade. Retention is based on an erroneous belief that students repeating the same grade level will “catch up” academically. Social promotion, which focuses on advancing students to the next grade regardless of their academic performance, is the common practice.
While neither option sounds appealing, the evidence against the use of retention is compelling. It is also imperative that parents and elected officials have access to this information as they consider appropriate measures to help all students achieve.
There are a few circumstances where retention is considered appropriate. The first is when a student has experienced extended or frequent absences that resulted in a significant loss of learning. The second is when a student starts kindergarten at a young age and appears to be struggling socially and academically.
Grade-level retention (or even the threat of it) is one of the few educational practices with almost no research to support its continued use. In fact, there are warnings regarding the severe long-term consequences of retention. Students may initially show a slight increase in performance when state tests are used as the measure of improvement, but student progress rapidly fades and improvement is replaced by an even greater sense of failure and frustration. As a result, retained students generally have a higher-than-average dropout rate, continued academic struggles, difficulty with peers, and lower self-esteem. Studies show that retention is the second greatest factor predicting which students will drop out.
Alternatives to retention that are supported by the National Association of School Psychologists and most schools tend to include extended academic programs such as after-school tutoring or summer school. Schools could also recommend frequent monitoring of a student’s progress through an individualized academic plan and consider additional supports provided by educational specialists.