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The idea of holding students back from promotion when they do not meet grade-level standards has been around for a long time. We have also known for a long time that the practice of having students repeat a grade is generally not effective. Researcher John Hattie’s meta-analysis of research on retention in grade shows the practice to be one of a few popular education practices that have a negative effect on learning growth. Other research shows correlations between grade retention and diminished high school graduation rates. And, when students are retained more than once, they rarely graduate from high school.

Yet, despite this and other research, fifteen states require retention in third grade when students do not meet expected reading scores. Nevada and Michigan will add the requirement in the 2019-2020 academic year.

The reasons why retention tends not to be effective are easy to identify. Simply repeating an experience that was not effective the first time offers little promise of help. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: repeating the same action over and over while expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. In addition, retaining students in a graded education system while their age-mates move forward often creates significant social issues, as the students now are forced to be in classes with the “little kids.” This stigma typically stays with students throughout their educational experience, including delaying their graduation from high school while age-mates enter college or the work force. Further, retention represents a daily reminder to students that they are not good learners, when the problem may be rooted in how they were taught, or some other factor getting in the way of learning. It is difficult to imagine any message more debilitating to a struggling learner.

Now, a soon to be released study involving 40,000 English language learners in Florida appears to show that students who were retained in third grade learned English in a shorter time than their age-mates who were promoted to fourth grade. On its face, the study seems to support grade retention, at least in a limited number of cases. Of course, the students were not just retained. They also received significant support through high quality teaching, additional time daily for reading instruction, and summer reading camp.

Not surprisingly, the study leaves many important questions unanswered. If the students had received the additional support earlier, might they have learned English faster and not have to be retained? Why wait until students “fail” before they receive the support and resources they need?

Why would we ignore what we know about learning and readiness? We know that readiness for learning varies among students. Some students find learning a new language easier than others. Some students are ready to learn some skills earlier, or later than others. When we base crucial decisions such as grade retention on a single test of young children, we ignore much of what we know about how learning and growth occur.

Might our practice of grouping students in grades by age also be contributing to this problem? What if we provided students with the supports they need and present them with academic content, including language study at a rate that matches their readiness? Again, we have known for decades that students learn best and fastest when presented with content and skills that build on what they already know and challenge them to learn at the next level. Our time-bound, age-based approach to education clearly is part of the cause. Students are presented with challenges for which they are not ready and in which they cannot succeed. Yet, we retain and blame them rather than ask whether the problem is the system.

Figlio, D. N., & Ozek, U. (2019, January). An extra year to learn English? Early grade retention and the human capital development of English learners. Retrieved from https://www.nber.org/papers/w25472

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