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Re-thinking Grade Level Retention

Retention is one of the most complicated topics to discuss in schools. Grade level retention is a topic that can heat up a conversation because most people disagree about it.

Grade level retention is a set back in a child’s educational life. Some argue that it helps address a student’s academic deficiency. I argue that there is plenty of research that contradicts retention. Not much convinces me that retention is the solution to a student’s academic struggle.

The first time I had to consider 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. I realized that exposing the student to the exact same curriculum was not the solution to a child’s academic deficiency.

It was then when I decided to read and learn more about the effects of grade-level retention. I wanted to have better conversations about this important decision.

As a parent, you might be asked to consider grade-level retention. In most cases, the decision may be presented as a benefit to your child’s education. Please keep in mind that you have every right to challenge a grade-level retention and you should feel empowered to do so. Below are some things to keep in mind when considering retention.

Why Retain?

Some people think that retention gives students “more time” to learn what they could not learn in a year. But why make a child spend more time in the same grade level they weren’t successful in? Especially when, in most cases, this also means repeating the same grade-level curriculum and interventions.

Why NOT Retain?

Schools aim to ensure that every student succeeds but it is also important to understand that some students may experience academic struggles as learners. Who said that all students must succeed at the same rate as others? Just because a student experience learning difficulties does not mean that she/she will never catch up or excel.

There are many factors to consider when a student is not successful in a grade level. For instance, 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. Others may not be able to function in such circumstances. When a student’s academic needs are not met, struggles reflect in his/her academic performance. This is when retention comes up.

Some Students Need More Time

More time is necessary for many students, especially 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 KN, but with consistency and dedication, he/she would most likely catch up by the end of the grade level.

Some students need more time. This means that the same student mentioned will enter the next grade level being behind, and take a bit longer to reach grade level.

In immersion classrooms, some students may seem as if they are performing under grade level, but most research demonstrates that some immersion students take longer to reach grade-level benchmarks. Immersion students are learning 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 students struggle to make progress if not given the appropriate interventions. If a student is struggling to learn alphabet sounds, then he/she should receive additional help to address letter sounds recognition. Interventions must be relevant to that student’s current need for students to succeed.

It is unfair to expect 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.

Some Students Need More Interventions

At times a student may need additional interventions. Schools must understand the importance of progress monitoring to know when to re-teach a skill or move on to the next skill or level. Academic progress is impacted when students do not receive additional interventions.

Students that Repeat a Grade Level are at Higher Risk of Drop Out

Research about retention has shown that retention puts students at higher risk of dropping out of school. In my opinion, this is because retention is a permanent action that can never be changed. As a student continues his/her education, they never forget being retained. Retention can be demoralizing as students see their friends go on to the next grade level while they are forced to make new friends.

Some students experience bullying or 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.

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

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