Repeating a Grade: Does It Help or Hurt Kids?
By Jeanne Sather

A California mother writes to me with a dilemma: Her five-year-old son is not doing well in kindergarten, and she wonders whether or not she should have him repeat the grade. "His teacher feels it could be a good idea," she writes, "but I'm still not sure what to do."

This mom may not know it, but she has wandered into the middle of one of the hottest debates in education today.

We are in the midst of a pendulum swing from the days when virtually every child was passed to the next grade (social promotion, it's called) to an era in which many more children are being retained, especially if they can't pass a skills test. What's troublesome about this change is that there is plenty of evidence that simply having children repeat a grade will not solve their problems--and it may put them at higher risk of dropping out later.


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Already, the pendulum is starting to swing back again in some school districts, such as Olympia, Washington's, where the policy is not to hold a child back. "It has to come from the parent," says kindergarten teacher Sally Bergquist. "If the parent is against [holding the child back], the teacher won't recommend it."

The upshot of all this is that parents should be forewarned that any advice they receive on whether or not they should have their child repeat a grade could well depend on where they live, and the vagaries of the local policies--and politics.


Here's a quick summary of the issues.


The case against social promotion

"Social promotion--the practice in which teachers and administrators appear to be indifferent to a student's academic challenges and promote them anyway--has been a disaster," says Douglas Reeves, Ph.D., the author of 20-Minute Learning Connection: A Practical Guide for Parents Who Want to Help Their Children Succeed in School.

"In some school systems," Reeves adds, "a majority of ninth graders cannot read high school level material."

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A 1997 report from the American Federation of Teachers said that if the United States is to move to more rigorous academic standards, social promotion has to go. Social promotion deludes students "into thinking they have learned the knowledge and skills for success," when they may be barely literate, the study says.  

Why repeating a grade may be even worse

Unfortunately, repeating a grade may have even worse consequences for a student who is doing poorly in school.

"Research studies suggest overwhelmingly that retention in grade is an ineffective strategy for children who are experiencing academic difficulty or demonstrating 'immature' behaviors," says Teresa Harris, an associate professor of early childhood education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the mother of seven children.

Reeves cites research published last year in Education Week that says that a student who repeats a grade in elementary school is much more likely to later drop out of school.

Students who are retained may do better at first but then fall behind again, possibly because of learning difficulties that have not been identified. Students who are held back are also more likely to dislike school, have low self-esteem, and cause trouble in class.

One study, conducted by the University of Georgia, found that students tended to fall even further behind during their second year in the same grade.  

Another option

A better solution to the either/or of social promotion v. retention is emerging, however. Educators are coming to realize that there is a third way, one that gives children the specific help they need to overcome the barriers to their academic success.

It is not a cookie-cutter approach, but one tailored to the individual child. Harris says, "For children who are having academic difficulty in learning school-related content, working with specialists in the areas of difficulty or receiving differentiated instruction of content is more effective than retention in grade."

Reeves agrees, saying, "Targeted intervention is the best hope for students who are failing academically."

He elaborates: "If a student has a specific difficulty in reading, for example, then repeating the 4th grade (in which the student might have received one hour a day of reading instruction) is not the answer. Rather, the student needs an intervention program in which he receives three to four hours each day of reading instruction. This is more important than foutth grade social studies, science, or any other activity.

"Moreover, when students get this sort of intensive intervention, it not only helps them achieve a reading level that is consistent with their grade level, but also allows them to ultimately succeed in the other academic subjects, such as science and social studies, that depend so much on reading skill."


Advice for parents

So what's a parent to do when a teacher suggests retention because of poor academic skills, immaturity, limited English skills, or other problems? Probably your first move is to ask the teacher to explain, in writing, what the problem is and why retention might help.

Then, explore the resources available at your child's school, such as a school psychologist or special education teacher, and ask that person to weigh in.

Paula R. Danzinger, an assistant professor of education and counseling at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, says if a school suggests holding your child back for reasons other than performance, such as maturity, you should get outside help. "While the schools are set up to assess these types of issues," she says, "they sometimes make mistakes and outside support is necessary for the parent to make an informed decision."

Danzinger is also a former elementary teacher, a licensed professional counselor, and a mother. She adds that a parent should take the time to gather all the pertinent facts and weigh the pros and cons. "Parents should not simply agree because the school says so," she says. "My best advice is to get outside opinions before making this type of decision."

Even if your child's problem is identified as poor academic performance, it may be a good time to look for a visual or hearing problem or have your child's learning style evaluated. A child who gets extra help from a special education teacher who understands his learning style may be able to progress to the next grade.

 And finally, support your child at home. This may mean reading with your child, taking "field trips" together to museums and other places where your child can get hands-on experience, and making sure your child has the tools she needs to do well at school--everything from a quiet place to work to access to the Internet.