Friday, June 4, 2010

Grade Retention

We are occasionally asked if we think a student would benefit from the “gift of time.”  In general, having students repeat a grade - grade retention or, as students will sometimes call it, being "left back"- is not an effective way to deal with students who struggle in school. As noted in a document from the National Association of School Psychologists, a review of the research in this area indicated that "For most students, grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (e.g., reading, math, and oral and written language) and social and emotional adjustment (e.g., peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

Still, school districts continue to use grade retention, often in response to the requirements imposed on schools by the No Child Left Behind law. Here in New York City, the issue of grade retention is sufficiently common that the excellent nonprofit, Advocates for Children has a series of parent kits with guidance on handling what they call "holdovers" for different grades. Essentially, for students who are not subject to state-wide testing (which occurs here in the 3rd and 5th grades) schools must look at several performance measures when deciding whether a student is to be retained,  including classroom performance, test scores, and attendance and students must meet standards in two out of three of these areas. There are exceptions for students with IEPs and for English Language Learners, but they are not automatic. Students in the 3rd and 5th grades must pass the state-wide tests in language arts and mathematics in order to be promoted. 

Until schools bring their policies in line with the research that indicates that grade retention is generally not a way to help students and, in fact,often  leads to lower self esteem and higher drop out rates without long term improvement in academic performance, parents will need to be proactive if they are concerned that their child is in danger of being retained. As the statement from the National Association of School Psychologists notes, "When faced with a recommendation to retain a child, the real task is not to decide to retain or not to retain but, rather, to identify specific intervention strategies to enhance the cognitive and social development of the child and promote his or her learning and success at school." That is why the answer is to understand why the child is experiencing academic failure, by means of a comprehensive diagnostic assessment, and to then develop and implement strategies to address the specific areas of academic breakdown and build upon areas of academic strength.

Parents may sometimes decide, for a variety of reasons, that grade retention is a reasonable choice for their child. But whether it is something parents want or something which is forced upon them by their school, one thing is certain. Retaining a child in the same grade will never be effective if that time is used to repeat the same lessons and procedures which didn't work the first time around.


  1. My child is seven years old will be eight in November. We have decided to hold him back in first grade. He was a preemie born at 24 weeks he is a little behind academically and in maturity. Any thoughts? I'm so emotionally burned out I don't know what to think anymore I don't know if its the right or wrong thing to do.

  2. Your decision was certainly a reasonable one. Preemies often “catch up” to other children by the time they are toddlers, but each child is different and you haven't provided any information about how he did during his time in the NICU. The question you may want to ask is whether there are developmental or educational issues that cause you concern. If so, you might want to consider looking further at his academics to see if there are areas of weakness that need attention. You can seek an assessment from your public school or obtain an evaluation privately, from The Yellin Center or elsewhere. Please feel free to contact us for more information.