5 Reasons to End Grade Retention

“Give them the gift of time”. “They just aren’t ready”. “They’ll do so much better with me again next year”.

Sound familiar? Students have been being held back a grade for decades in the attempt to reteach them skills that they did not master during the current year. The American Educational Research Association puts grade retention rates between 1-2% for all school-aged children in The United States. However, the number can be double or triple for students of color, English Language Learners, and children who are socio-economically disadvantaged. Sadly, empirical research clearly indicates that this “gift of time” is not only ineffective, but potential harmful to students who are held back a year. However, year after year, in schools across the country, children are still being retained.

Here are 5 reasons we need to end this harmful practice.

  1. Gains are fleeting and short term

Educators often tout the gains that retained students make the following year. Given that these students already received this instruction once, it is not surprising that they would perform better the second time around in the grade. However, these gains do not last, as the true learning issue was never addressed. The vast majority of students end up struggling once again the following year and each year after that, as the learning issue remains constant and untreated.

  1. We are treating the symptoms, not the problem

Holding a child back a grade does not look at the source of the issue. It puts a band-aide on a would that requires more strategic and targeted attention. Instead of retention, a child will benefit more from a strategic Response to Intervention plan and supports during the next school year. Remember, not all children learn in the same way or at the same rate. It is also important to look for potential learning disabilities. Retention will not help a child who needs more strategic and comprehensive help from Special Education teachers.

  1. Puberty

One might not think twice about a first grader fitting in with Kindergarten students. However, these children do grow up. The difference between a 6 and 7 year old might not be that drastic, but fast forward five or six years and you could be looking at the difference between a boy and a young man. Depending on the birthdate of the retained child, students can be close to two years older than other students in their class. This can cause them to stick out in middle school where it is tough enough as they are dealing with new social issues and puberty. These students stick out in middle school. You can point them out from across the school.

  1. The Stigma

Retaining a child has a big impact on their self-esteem. Seeing all their friends advance to the next grade while they stay behind can be traumatizing. Student report that the fear of being retained is second only to losing a parent and losing the ability to see. Struggling students are already dealing with the frustration of not learning at the same rate as their peers. It is important to not make them feel even worse.

  1. Accountability for Educators

Educators need to look for different ways to engage their students. Student learning failures need to be seen as opportunities for educators and schools to reinvent instructional practices that will meet the needs of their students. Holding a student back a grade puts the accountability solely on the child.

Dr. David Franklin, CEO of The Principal’s Desk, is an experienced school administrator, education professor, curriculum designer, and presenter. He is the co-author of Can All Schools Succeed. Dr. Franklin has presented at national and international education conferences as is available for school and district professional development sessions. He can be reached at david@theprincipalsdesk.org or at www.principalsdesk.org.

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