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Re-thinking Grade Level Retention

Retention is one of the most controversial topics that schools must address each school year. Grade retention is a topic that can easily heat up a conversation. It is one of the topics that most people tend to disagree about. Some think that it helps a child “catch up” while others see it as a setback.

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I argue that grade retention is a setback in a child’s educational life that can cause permanent damage. I don’t agree with those who think retention helps address a student’s academic deficiency. Not much can convince me after 15 years in education that retention fixes a student’s academic struggle.

In my earlier years as an educator, I spent time researching grade-level retention. I found that there is plenty of educational research that contradicts grade-level retention and very little research to support it.

As an ESL Coordinator, the first time I considered retaining a student, I struggled to understand how retaining could help. It meant that the student would repeat the same lessons, math, and reading instruction in the same grade level.

The thought of having a student repeat the same learning activities and curriculum did not make sense to me. It meant that a student will read the same stories and mathematical concepts. The idea of repeating the same grade did not seem like the solution to a child’s poor performance. It was then that I decided to do more research on the effects of grade-level retention. Understanding the negative effects of retention helped guide my conversations with teachers and administrators.

What is Retention?

Wikipedia defines grade retention or grade repetition as the process of a student repeating a policy of social promotion, with the idea that staying within the same age group is important. In other words, it is the act of not promoting a student from one grade to the next. For example, not promoting a 2nd grader to 3rd grade.

Organizations, such as, report that solid statistics are hard to find. They estimate that the number of students retained at least once in their school career range from 10 to 20 percent. Black students are more than twice as likely to be held back as white students, and boys are twice as likely as girls (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).

When might grade retention come up?

As a parent, you might have to consider grade-level retention sometime during your child’s elementary years. I have seen some teachers present retention as a benefit to your child’s education. There are several reasons often given to justify student grade retention which may include maturity, age level, academic performance, and test scores.


A child’s maturity level is sometimes questioned and considered when determining retention. This may come up when the child does not act “mature enough” in a teacher’s eye. Some things teachers might say are, “he’s too immature” for his age. This is when a teacher may think that acting younger hinders a child’s learning.

Age Level

In some cases, a child’s age level may concern educators. This happens because there’s an assumption that at each age level, a student must perform at a specific grade level. Age may sometimes become a factor when a student is misplaced during school registration. For example, if a child is placed in an upper-grade level by mistake.

In other cases, age might come up if the child is the youngest class member. For this reason, it is important to ensure that schools carefully place students in the appropriate grade level during new student registration. Grade-level placement plays an important role in grade level.

Academic Performance and test scores

Another reason to justify retaining a student may relate to reading and math academic outcomes and performance. Some may think reading and math performance should determine a student’s promotion to the next grade level.  In US schools, academic performance plays a major role in grade promotion.

When a student struggles in reading or math at a certain grade level, it is assumed that the student will continue to struggle and never catch up. This assumption can be detrimental because learning is continuous, and students do not learn at the same rate. Academic development takes time, and not every child should be expected to learn at the same rate.

An additional reason for retention may be in-class test performance and scores. High-stakes testing is sometimes considered when score results are lower than the average. More than high-stakes testing, ongoing assessments are referenced and monitored to assess student progress. These test scores are used to evaluate academic performance and often misguide conversations about retention.

Maturity, age level, academic performance, and test scores are some of the reasons often used to justify retention. Some of these may sound familiar to you as a parent. Remember that you have every right to challenge grade-level retention, and you should feel empowered to do so. Below are some things to keep in mind when considering retention

Why NOT Retain?

Although schools aim to ensure every student succeeds, sometimes it is easy to forget that some students may experience academic struggles as learners. Who said that all students must succeed at the same rate? On the contrary, just because a student experiences learning difficulties does not mean they will never catch up or excel.

There are various factors to consider when a child fails at a grade level. For instance, some factors to consider are a student-to-teacher mismatch, instructional pace in the classroom, student dedication, quality of instruction, lack of interventions, and much more.

Some students can learn and succeed even when they experience one or more of these factors. However,  student performance suffers for other students in such circumstances.  

Some Students Need More Time

In addition to age level, test scores, and academic performance, there’s a belief that involuntary grade retention gives a student “more time” to learn what they did not learn in a year. I argue that extra time in the same grade level they weren’t successful in does not address a student’s learning needs—especially when, in most cases, this also means repeating the same grade-level curriculum and interventions.

Learning takes time, and for some kids, extra time is necessary. This is especially true for English language learners and students in dual language immersion classrooms. Students learn at a different pace, and that is ok. A student may take some time to show progress in kindergarten, but they tend to catch up by the end of kindergarten with consistency and dedication.

When a student needs more time, this may mean entering the next grade level behind.   For example, in elementary immersion classrooms, some students may seem to be performing under grade level; however, research demonstrates that these students may take longer to reach grade-level benchmarks. This is because immersion students learn two different languages, and as they progress to higher grade levels, they catch up by the end of 6th grade.

Some Students Need Appropriate Interventions

There are occasions when a child might struggle to make basic reading skills progress when not given effective interventions. If a student struggles to learn alphabet sounds, then he/she should receive additional help to address letter sound recognition. For students to succeed, interventions must be relevant to that student’s current needs.

This includes not expecting a student to show adequate academic progress when given incorrect interventions. The consistency and fidelity of implementation are essential to the academic achievement of all learners.

Ideas to help kids with Reading Comprehension

Some Students Need More Interventions

At times, a student may need additional interventions. School programs must understand the importance of monitoring academic progress to know when to re-teach or move on to the next skill and level. Negative effects may occur when not given additional or intensive interventions. 

Students need additional interventions when they struggle in reading or mathematics. Interventions provide instruction in specific skills to help kids overcome challenging areas. Most kids respond to interventions and in many cases overcome their struggles when given consistent support on a regular basis.

Higher Risk of Drop Out

Research has shown that retention puts students at a higher risk of dropping out. This is because retention is a permanent action that rarely ever changes. As a student continues his/her education, they may never forget being retained.

Retention can be demoralizing as students see their peers go on to the next grade level. As a result, these kids are often forced to make new friends. Some students experience bullying or are questioned and subsequently feel uncomfortable. The stigma that comes with retention is a lifelong concern that impacts a student’s self-efficacy in education. Retention causes doubts, and it can sometimes make a student question his/her ability to learn.

Overall, we should work together to NOT use retention as the solution to our student’s academic deficiencies and struggles. Instead of retention, I recommend parents and educators consider promotion with additional support. Education is a lifelong journey that we should embrace with possibilities and educational support, not a negative and permanent action such as retention.

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