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