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Grade Retentions: Are They Helpful or Harmful?

Updated on June 5, 2014

As a teacher I often struggle with the idea of retention. I have seen retention do wonders for some students but I have also seen retention provide no benefit for many students. Teachers want what is best for their students, and we often have internal battles with ourselves trying to decide what the best decision would be for our students. Is it best to retain a student who is underperforming or is better to promote the student onto the next grade level with their peers? Many studies have been done on the idea of retention and promotion, and many of the studies have not found any solid conclusion as to whether one is better than the other.

Who is Usually Retained?

There is a certain population of students that are more likely to be retained. Students who have the greatest chance of being retained are students who, in addition to poor academic performance, have the following characteristics: younger students who have summer birthdays or early fall birthdays usually experience more academic failure than older students, males are more likely to be retained than females, low household income, English as a second language, single parent families, Latino, or African American race/ethinicity. Age has a lot to do with retention rates because the younger the student is when they start kindergarten the more likely they are to be retained. Some parents, predominately from higher income families, choose to hold their younger children out of school for an extra year, so that their child will not be the youngest in the class but instead will be one of the older students in the class. Parents choose to hold their students out of school for an extra year for a variety of reasons such as maturity level and allowing their child more time to gain more skills prior to entering kindergarten. High income parents are usually the parents to do this because they have the means to provide childcare for their children during the extra year of not entering school. So this may be why higher income families have less children who are retained because they have the means to allow their children another year to mature and to learn more prior to entering kindergarten. So in turn, higher income families’ children are more prepared for the public education system. Lower income families may not have the means to keep their children out of school for an extra year so lower income children may start school before they are truly ready too.

Grade Retention?
Grade Retention? | Source

What is Grade Retention?

Wikipedia defines Grade retention or grade repetition as the process of having a student repeat an educational course, usually one previously failed. Students who repeat a course or grade can be referred to as “repeaters” or can also be known as being “held” back. There are many proponents and opponents of grade retention. Some opponents of grade retention believe in social promotion. Social promotion is when a student is promoted through each grade no matter what their achievement, grades, or success was in the grade prior. Social Promotion students will move through each grade level even when they are failing.

Should students be retained or social promoted?

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Proponents For Grade Retention

Many educators and parents believe that grade retention can be very beneficial for students in the primary grades (K-2). Proponents for grade retention believe it would be unfair to send students who are failing in lower grades to a higher grade which will require the student to complete higher skill levels. For example if a student is failing in Kindergarten, how could they possibly achieve in First Grade where the skills become harder. Proponents of retention believe that students can gain the skills necessary prior to moving to the next level by being held back a year. This means the student who was having difficulty and failing in Kindergarten will repeat Kindergarten to learn the skills that were not learned during the first year of Kindergarten. Grade retention hopes that the students will learn the skills the second time around and be more successful in the future. The main goal for retaining students is to give them and extra year of instruction so the students will be better prepared when entering the next grade.

Grade Retention
Grade Retention | Source

Opponents Against Grade Retention

Opponents believe that the bad outweighs the good. Opponents believe that there are too many negative effects caused by retaining a student in a grade. The Wisconsin Education Association Council states that students who are retained or delayed kindergarten entry are more likely to drop out of school compared to students who were never retained. Opponents look at research which shows that students who were retained also have a higher probability of dropping out of school and not graduating. Opponents also believe that the damage done to the student’s self esteem is enough to justify not retaining a student. Opponents agree that grade repeaters turn into adults that are more likely to be unemployed, living on public assistance, or in prison.

What Does the Research Say?

Research finds initial achievement gains in the grade of which the student is repeating. This means that if a first grader repeats first grade for a second year, the student will show gains at the first grade level. However, when students who have been retained move onto the next grade level they show no signs of gains from being held back. So this means when the student moves from first grade to second grade after repeating first grade two years in a row, the student goes to second grade and begins failing again and lagging behind. So the initial achievement students gain when repeating is lost in the next grade.

What Does This All Mean?

Grade retention only shows short term gains, which does not extend into a student’s later school years. Students still show signs of difficulty and failure even after being retained. Retention may not be the answer to helping students because the bad does seem to outweigh the short term goals. Students who are retained face the following obstacles: The students are taken out of their class full of peers and placed in a new group of peers, the student’s friends move on but the student is left behind, self esteem issues may develop, behavior issues become worse when students are retained, school systems have to spend more money per student when children are retained, and students graduate later and enter the workforce later when retained.

This does not mean retention causes the low graduation rates for retained students or that students who are retained will end up being less productive. It’s not the retention that does this to the students, it is their lack of success in school that does this. It is not retention that suddenly changes these students into failures. There is a correlation between retentions and graduation rates, because students who are retained are low performers which obviously means that low performers will have less of a chance of graduating. However, any way you look at it, if you are failing, you are failing whether you are retained or not. Retentions do not make students failures, the way students are raised and their ability level determine a student’s life in public education. If students are not motivated or capable of the work, they will never be able to do the work.


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