Playing catch up: Should students repeat a grade at school?

We should be questioning the benefits of holding students back a year. Wikimedia Commons

Making students repeat a year when they’re not doing well socially or academically is not uncommon in Australia. About 8-10% of students repeat a grade at some point in school life.

But there is a major assumption underlying the practice – it is thought that retaining students in a grade for an extra year provides the opportunity to catch up with other students socially, physically, behaviourally, and emotionally. Not to mention keeping up with the curriculum.

The evidence

But research into grade retention shows that in the main, it can have a negative impact on students’ academic outcomes.

Through my own research the evidence suggests that grade retention significantly predicts school drop-out, lower academic achievement, and lower post-school educational attainment.

These negative effects seem most apparent when students are retained in later grades, with fewer negative effects for retention in the first two or three years of school.

Although some research indicates that there are possible advantages of early grade retention being lost down the track.

Educational support

Research focusing on different approaches to grade retention indicates that retention involving educational support is not as effective as promoting students to the next grade and providing that same educational support.

This suggests it may be more effective to promote students and administer educational intervention than hold them back while giving them the same help.

Costs of keeping children back

While there tends to be reasonably consistent findings for negative academic outcomes, there are mixed findings for research into non-academic outcomes.

For example, some research suggests socio-emotional and adjustment difficulties associated with grade retention, while other research finds no negative stigma as a result of grade retention.

There are also financial and other implications in the grade retention issue.

An additional year of tuition can be an expensive and time-consuming response.

The direct and indirect costs of educating a child for an additional year (compounded by all grade retentions in the system) can be substantial.

The motivational impact

We’ve seen retention as the norm, but should it be the default option? Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I examined the effects of grade retention on academic (e.g., motivation, engagement) and non-academic (e.g., peer relationships, self-esteem) outcomes in a study of just over 3,500 high school students.

The results indicated that students who repeated were significantly higher in disengagement, higher in days absent from school, lower in homework completion, lower in academic confidence, and lower in general self-esteem.

These results held up even after controlling for students’ gender, age, ethnicity, and ability.

There was no significant difference between retained and non-retained students on peer relationship measures (suggesting there was no social gain through being repeated).

And in preliminary analysis, it also seemed that the effects of grade retention were negative irrespective of the grade a student was retained. Although, it is important to note that other research finds early grade retention may not have negative effects.

Why do we do it?

All this raises the question as to why grade retention continues to be a response to problematic pathways through school.

First, there is an intuitive “logic” to grade retention. Progress in life often means doing things a second time.

Second, it is part of the history of our educational fabric and these things are sometimes uncritically accepted or taken as a default more than they should be.

Third, grade retention is a relatively straightforward strategy to implement – pressing the “pause button” is more straightforward than providing rich educational support over the short to longer-term.

Fourth, grade retention does not require much innovation or change in school structure and practice – a student is simply held in place for a year.

Fifth, grade retention effects are not always negative; there is research finding positive effects.

Similarly, negative findings do not apply to all students.

For example, is it the case that positive effects may be present for: early grade retention, retention when the student is happy (or not unhappy) to repeat, when he or she has a say in the decision-making, the final year of school when the student has a second go at a specific mark to get into university, the final year if there has been illness or major interruptions, or if the student repeats at a different school?

All of these, and other questions, should be taken into account when deciding on grade retention for an individual student.

Notwithstanding this, perhaps in all such (and other) cases, there are educational issues that will still need direct attention. These precise issues must be addressed directly and often on a sustained basis.

The alternatives

Instead of waiting for a student to under-achieve – a “wait-to-fail” response – firstly, we should clearly identify the precise nature of the educational (and other) issues leading to considerations of grade retention.

And then, with this in mind, schools should be forward-looking to explicitly teach the skills needed for keeping up with the curriculum.

This involves direct instruction of content, explicit teaching of curriculum material, deliberate practice of important skills and processes (e.g., maths problems, essays etc), worked examples to give step by step demonstrations of how to perform tasks and operations, one-on-one attention, and ongoing assessment of progress and remediation as needed.

This might also involve things like structured templates for essays or reports (and other substantial tasks students must perform).

Parents, caregivers and schools also need to engage in tutoring when needed in specific curriculum areas.

And educators and caregivers need to engage in explicit and direct literacy and numeracy instruction if these skills are posing difficulties – even for some high school students, going back to basics on things like phonics may be needed.

There also needs to be frequent monitoring of these skills and grasp of curriculum content so adjustments to (or continuation of) remediation are made.

And finally identify a staff member known to connect well with the child to mentor and advocate for the student within the school.

Should we stop retention?

The effects of grade retention can be negative, more so for academic than non-academic outcomes.

However, numerous caveats and additional considerations are relevant to the decision to hold a student back a grade.

The decision to repeat a child should be considered very closely and not as a default (or the only possible) response to a problematic situation.

There are numerous educational approaches that can assist young people’s journey through school and these need to be taken into consideration.