Grade retention is the practice of making students who have failed repeat the year. These students are commonly called repeaters. This is the usual alternative to social promotion which was discussed in my last post. The rationale for grade retention is the inability of failing students to cope with work at higher grade levels. In schools in the USA more Black students than Whites are retained, in terms of percentage, and more boys are retained than girls.
There is much controversy surrounding grade retention and whether or not it improves learning in students who have failed to meet promotion criteria. Although most people agree that promoting students who have failed, on the basis of age rather than academic achievement (social promotion), is not a good idea, they still consider grade retention to be an unsatisfactory though preferable solution. Because of the many problems and higher financial costs associated with retention, many schools deliberately set promotion criteria at levels that allow the vast majority of students to be promoted. In some countries grade retention is restricted and other alternatives are utilized.
Setting is one such alternative which is common in the U.K. It involves grouping students of similar ability together for certain subjects. A student can be in an advanced set for mathematics, for example and a lower set for geography.
Although retention is widely utilized, practitioners readily agree that it does not solve, on its own, the problem of student underachievement and that it is fraught with challenges. Grade retention has negative psychological effects on students. It creates poor attitudes towards school and behavioural problems. It also causes low self-esteem and is correlated with higher levels of delinquency among repeaters. Some repeaters do not improve their academic performance and are more likely to drop out of school than students who have been promoted. They tend to assert themselves in disruptive ways.
Some studies show that there are no significant differences in subsequent attainment between students who have been retained and those who have been socially promoted. In fact, individual studies can be cited which support either retention or social promotion. The evidence is unclear. Alexander et al., 1994 and Thompson, 1999 state that grade retention does not produce significant or lasting gains in student achievement.
For grade retention to be more effective, retained students must be given remedial help. Just repeating the year is not enough. Extra tutoring, summer courses or lessons after school can improve and sustain learning. Repeaters’ weaknesses must be diagnosed and remedied. Special interventions must be arranged for students with learning disabilities.
Parents and teachers must form a partnership to keep repeaters on task. Parents need to supervise homework, monitor assignments and maintain contact with teachers. Schools must make social and emotional learning a priority for these students and keep them focused on learning and good study habits. In these conditions grade retention can make a positive difference.