Retaining students? Not a good idea.

We had a silly ceremony when I was in first grade. It was called "the first grade graduation ceremony." We all stood around and our families all came out and we celebrated our graduation from first grade. We were even given little certificates to hold onto to remind us of the experience. I have no idea if my mom still has mine, but I doubt it.

We stood in line and each name, except one, was called. I still remember the look on my friend’s face when his name wasn’t called. When they should have called his name, he twitched a little, like he was expecting to be called. His face changed and a look I had never seen before on another person’s face came over him. That look on his face told me that he understood what had happened and felt a deep sense of shame he didn’t know how to handle. I didn’t know what it meant then, but later in life, I learned it well (but that’s another story).

When I think of that moment, I have a weird discomfort that follows and I remember thinking at the time, why isn’t he graduating? My friend wasn’t graduating because he’d been retained. He’d been held back another year. He had attempted first grade, and been found wanting.

The fact that I still remember this moment, from nearly 30 years ago so vividly should tell you something. The moments that we think kids will get over and forget about are actually the ones that kids remember most. If it would be a painful memorable experience for an adult, it’s a painful memorable experience for a kid. We can’t absolve ourselves of guilt simply by thinking that we aren’t doing permenant harm to these children. We are.

The research on retention, as I understand it, is quite clear. "[T]he cumulative evidence does not support the use of grade retention as an intervention for academic achievement."

If grade retention is so bad, why are schools still doing it? Doesn’t anyone read education research before they enact these kinds of policies in schools?

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5 Comments

  • Another great problematic issue in education. I think the real problem is that we often think of it as a retention vs social promotion argument. Social promotion can be as detrimental to a child as retention. When we promote a child that is struggling, we need to provide extra support so they can “catch up” to their peers. Focusing on a child’s strength while providing extra support ion areas in which he/she struggles is, in my opinion, the best route. Thanks for blogging on another important topic.

  • This is a hard one. You don’t want to promote a student who is not sufficient to pass to the next level. You almost do them a greater disservice by passing them, since they will struggle immensely and fall so far behind. At the same time, kids don’t understand much in grade 1 so this retention will be remembered for a long time. I’ve never heard of retention in elementary school. In most high schools, all students walk across the stage, so no one is left out and the audience won’t know who graduates and who doesnt. The diploma is sent in the mail afterwards

  • David Wees wrote:

    So there are a couple of assumptions in your first sentence I want to challenge.

    You don’t want to promote a student who is not sufficient to pass to the next level…

    The first assumption is that there should be levels that students should pass through on the way to becoming an adult. We currently have students grouped by age, when perhaps a better grouping would be by mastery. The second assumption in your sentence is that we should be "passing" students along to the next level. I didn’t say that, what I said is that retaining them at the current level is harmful, more harmful than moving them on. What works best is keeping them moving along with their peers and providing them with much more support than they got before.

    It is cheaper and more efficient to spend the money to keep a student in school & engaged than to let them drop out and become a drain on society. Given that many of the students who are retained (or would have been retained except for social promotion) are the very same students who become our drop-outs later, it would be better to provide the extra support they need earlier in life.

  • Courtney Mathis wrote:

    Hi, my name is Courtney Mathis, I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class. I will be summarizing my visit to your blog on my class blog on 2/6. Here is a link to my class blog,and here is a link to the EMD 310 blog. I agree with you that holding a child back a grade can have some negative emotional effects on the child. But I do think that there are some circumstances in which it is appropriate to retain a student. However, I do not think that it is okay to hold back a student because they are not “mature” enough to move on to the next grade level. I believe that the only reason that a student should be retained is if they are not academically capable of doing the work that a higher grade level requires. When you are speaking of a first grade child I automatically think about reading. One of the main requirements to move from the first grade to the second grade is being able to successfully read a certain number of words a minute. If a child can not read well at the end of the first grade, and the majority of their assignments in the second grade require a higher reading level, then I believe that they should be required to improve their reading skills before they can move on to the second grade. But you always have the option of tutoring, if you are completely opposed to grade retention, summer tutoring is a great alternative! The option of grade retention could possibly have a backfire effect. Even thought you are trying to help the child by improving their skills before they can move onto the next level, being held back may discourage them and reduce the effort that they put into learning.

  • David Wees wrote:

    You raise some good points about the child not being ready for the next "level." I’d argue that the levels themselves are somewhat arbitrary and that it’s really hard to tell if any given child is ready. We choose a level under which we think the child is not fit for the next level, and everyone above that level is somehow prepared. 

    Instead, we should advance every child BUT keep careful track of the students who did not meet our "requirements" and provide them with additional support. Summer school is one option, but in opinion, most summer school programs have very little actual learning going on. Students are just stuck in fast track programs for extra credits in most schools. Certainly that’s how it was at my school when I worked in NYC.

    We should base whether or not we retain a child on more than just, "will it be more expensive to help this child next year," and look at the end effect of a policy of retention. It is my understanding that retaining students affects both graduation rates and other measures of student success in schools. Students who are retained also have lower self-esteem and place a lower value on their learning than their peers.

    What you say seems logical but I don’t think is actually supported by research in the area.

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