Why are we continuing to retain kids?

I’ve read many articles recently about the literacy problem in America and they all discuss the same things: our kids aren’t reading and our teachers aren’t properly trained.  I recently came across what I thought was another version of this discussion on NPR, “States are Ratcheting Up Reading Expectations for 3rd Graders” but after a quick gloss over, I found this article was about the literacy issue AND mandatory grade retention. This made me stop and read further.

Grade retention, aka repeating a grade/holding a child back is a hot topic. It’s been common practice in our school systems since we began sorting kids into grade levels starting in the 19th century (I’m sure I’m not the only teacher thankful we don’t teach in one room school houses anymore) but research shows this “intervention” is not effective and negatively impacts a child’s academic and social well being.

So, why are we continuing to use retention AND in some states,  make it MANDATORY?

What are the facts?

  • We can estimate 10-20% of students have been retained at least one grade.

  • Black students are more than twice as likely to be held back as white students

  • Boys are twice as likely to be held back as girls

  (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).


Common Reasons for Retention

 1.      Poor Behavior. Teachers are often heard saying “another year will do him good” or “he just

needs to mature a little more.”

  2.      The child is struggling academically Teachers are heard saying:.  “ They just need another

year to catch up.”

  3.      The child did not pass the standardized test (as put in place through No Child Left Behind)

See recent NPR article


Reasons to Promote

  • We can’t punish kids for having unqualified teachers. Teacher expertise is by far the single most important determinant of student performance

  • Low-income, minority and special-needs students are least likely to receive well-qualified, highly effective teachers. (https://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=15030)

  •  3rd graders struggled during the repeated year, had higher rates of special education placement, and two years later showed no advantage over those who had been promoted.

  • Students who drop out are five times more likely to have been retained than those who graduate (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). 

  •  Even small children perceive that being held back is a stigma.

  • One study found that children fear grade retention so much that they cite it No. 3 on their list of anxieties following only the fear of blindness and death of a parent. https://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=15030


What are the alternatives?

 We need to implement interventions based research!

  • Well designed summer school programs

  • After school tutoring

  • More help during the day.  

  • We need to train teachers to identify academic struggles early on

  • Encourage parents to speak up if they feel their child is struggling in school

  • Early diagnosis and targeted intervention make a lasting impact.

"Contrary to popular beliefs, repeating a grade does not help students gain ground academically and has a negative impact on social adjustment and self-esteem." (Professor Lorrie Sheperd, University of Colorado)


Holly TurnerComment