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Grade retention or grade repetition is the process of having a student repeat an educational course, usually one previously failed. Students who repeat a course are referred as "repeaters". Repeaters can be referred to as having been "held back".
The primary alternative to grade retention (for those who have failed) is a policy of social promotion, under the ideological principle that staying with their same-age peers is important. Social promotion is the promotion of all students, regardless of achievement, from one class to the next. Social promotion is somewhat more accepted in countries which use tracking to group students according to academic ability. Regardless of whether a failing student is retained or promoted, academic scholars believe that underperformance must be addressed with intensive remedial help, such as summer school programs.
In most countries, grade retention has been banned or strongly discouraged. In Canada and the United States, grade retention can be used from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. However, with older students, retention is usually restricted to the specific classes that the student failed, so that a student can be, for example, promoted in a math class but retained in a language class.
Where it is permitted, grade retention is most common among students in early elementary school. Most schools refuse to retain a student more than once in a single grade, or more than two or three years across all grades. Students with intellectual disabilities are only retained when parents and school officials agree to do so. Children who are relative young in their age cohort are four times more likely to be retained.
Different schools have used different approaches throughout history. Grade retention or repetition was essentially meaningless in the one-room schoolhouses of more than a century ago, because access to outside standards were very limited, and the small scale of the school, with perhaps only a few students of each age, was conducive to individualized instruction. With the proliferation of larger, graded schools in the middle of the 19th century, retention became a common practice. In fact, a century ago, approximately half of all American students were retained at least once before the age of 13.
Social promotion began to spread in the 1930s with concerns about the psychosocial effects of retention. Social promotion is the promoting of underperforming students under the ideological principle that staying with their same-age peers is important to success. This trend reversed in the 1980s, as concern about slipping academic standards rose.
The practice of grade retention in the U.S. has been climbing steadily since the 1980s. The practice of making retention decisions on the basis of the results of a single test — called high-stakes testing — is widely condemned by professional educators. Test authors generally advise that their tests are not adequate for high-stakes decisions, and that decisions should be made based on all the facts and circumstances.
There is conclusive evidence that grade retention is significantly helpful, and much of the existing research has been methodologically invalid. Three different kinds of studies exist or have been proposed, and each has its inherent pitfalls:
- Studies which compare students who were retained to students who were considered for retention, but were eventually promoted. These studies favor social promotion.:54 However, the promoted students were not retained because the schools believed them to be stronger or more personally mature students (as evidenced by the decision to promote them). These studies are unfairly biased in favor of social promotion because they compare the better/promoted students to the weaker/retained students.
- Studies which compare retained students to their own prior performance. These studies favor grade retention. However, these studies are biased because they do not adequately control for personal growth or changes in environmental factors (such as poverty).
- Studies which randomly assign a large pool of borderline students to promotion or retention. This style of research is methodologically sound and, if performed on a sufficiently large scale and with sufficiently detailed information collected, would provide valuable or even definitive information. However, schools and parents are unwilling to have a child's future affected by a random assignment, and so these studies are simply not done.
Non-academic outcomes: Retention is associated with poor “social adjustment, attitudes toward school, behavioral outcomes, and attendance.” Retention is a “stronger predictor of delinquency than socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity,” and is also a strong predictor of drug and alcohol use and teenage pregnancy.:54–55 (Study style #1 favors social promotion.)
Australia and New Zealand
Australia uses grade retention, although in 2010, the New South Wales Department of Education and Training made a new policy of no student repeating at any school for various reasons (for example, as of 2010, students are not repeating Year 11 or Year 12 because of all the post-school services after they complete Year 12 such as TAFEs or universities.
In New Zealand, secondary schools commonly use a system of internal academic streaming in which children of the same age are subdivided on the basis of ability, and lower achieving students (those who would be retained under the North American system) are taught in different classes, and at a different rate, from higher achieving students, but are kept within their own age group. This system has largely rendered grade retention unnecessary in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
In most cases where streaming alone is insufficient, additional special needs provision is usually seen as being preferable to grade retention, particularly when behavioral difficulties are involved.
Singapore practices grade retention in secondary school if a student is unsuccessful in achieving a satisfactory accumulated percentage grade. The school authorities may also decide that it would be more appropriate for the student to advance to a higher level in a lower stream such as in the cases of Express and Normal (Academic) students.
Greece allows grade retention if a student fails more than 5 final exams, or 5 or less both in May examinations and in September examination. A student who has missed more than 114 periods of class can also repeat a grade.
The United States and Canada both use grade retention.
In the U.S., six-year-old students are most likely to be retained, with another spike around the age of 12. In particular, some large schools have a transitional classroom, sometimes called "Kindergarten 2," for six-year-olds who are not reading-ready.
The following are common arguments regarding this practice.
Arguments against grade retention
Opponents of "no social promotion" policies do not defend social promotion so much as say that retention is even worse. They argue that retention is not a cost-effective response to poor performance when compared to cheaper or more effective interventions, such as additional tutoring and summer school. They point to a wide range of research findings that show no advantage to, or even harm from, retention, and the tendency for gains from retention to wash out.
Harm from retention cited by these critics include:
- May lower the self esteem of the student and make them feel as if they were mentally inferior and in turn cause them to give up on their academics. It may also cause them to be the subject of ridicule and bullying by other students.
- Increased drop-out rates of retained students over time.
- No evidence of long-term academic benefit for retained students.
- Increased rates of dangerous behaviors such as drinking, drug abuse, crime, teenage pregnancy, depression, and suicide among retained students as compared with similarly performing promoted students.
Critics of retention also note that retention is expensive for school systems: requiring a student to repeat a grade is essentially to add one student for a year to the school system, assuming that the student does not drop out.
The possibility of grade retention has been shown to be a significant source of stress for students. In one study of childhood fears performed in the 1980s, the top three fears for US sixth graders were a parent's death, going blind, and being retained. After two decades of increasing retention practices, a repeat of the study in 2001 found that grade retention was the single greatest fear, higher than loss of a parent or going blind. This change likely reflects the students' correct perception that they were statistically far more likely to repeat the sixth grade than to suffer the death of a parent or the loss of their vision.
Arguments for grade retention
Opponents of social promotion argue that passing a child who did not learn the necessary material cheats the child of an education. As a result, when the child gets older, the student will likely fail classes or be forced to attend summer school. Opponents of social promotion argue that it has the following negative impacts:
- Students who are promoted cannot do the work in the next grade, and so are being set up for further failure.
- Students will have many failures in the high school years, which will most likely lead to dropping out.
- It sends the message to all students that they can get by without working hard.
- It forces teachers to deal with under-prepared students while trying to teach the prepared.
- It gives parents a false sense of their children's progress.
- It will not get them the help they need.
-  Definition of repeater, accessed January 28, 2007
- social promotion definition - Dictionary - MSN Encarta, accessed June 7, 2010
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