Considering holding a student back a grade (called “retention”) is a common question wrestled with by both parents and educators. Some parents will choose to delay starting their child in kindergarten, often called red-shirting, for a variety of reasons.
This article is not referring to red-shirting, but rather retaining a student who has already started school.
Rationales for Retention
Many state governments mandate retention in certain circumstances. For example, in my state, 4th grade students who read below a 3rd grade level must be retained, unless they are in special education or on a 504 Plan for reading or have limited English proficiency.
Aside from mandatory retention, the main reason people want to retain a student is due to perceived issues with academic performance. However, the reality is that schools are required to educate students who have a wide variety of experiences and abilities. This diversity makes it inevitable that some students will fall behind their peers.
It would seem intuitive that, for a student who is academically behind, retention would be beneficial. After all, re-teaching the concepts seems a logical strategy to improve performance. The research behind retention, however, shows that any such benefits are short-lived. In fact, more of the same kind of instruction is often ineffective.
Risks of Retention
In most educational circles, retaining or holding a student back is not considered good practice. Consider these statistics:
- Research around retention has shown that students who are retained at least once prior to high school are at significantly higher risk of dropping out.
- Approximately 69% of retained students end up dropping out in high school. That is more than three times the national average.
- Students who are retained two or more grades drop out at a rate of over 93%.
The significance of these findings cannot be overstated. Retaining a student twice almost guarantees they will not finish school. Retention for even one year may seriously compromise their persistence to graduation.
Retention’s Opposite: Social Promotion
One might argue that the opposite of retention, social promotion, is also a bad practice. Social promotion is advancing students to the next grade, even when they lag significantly behind their peers in academic performance. If retention is a bad practice and social promotion is a bad practice, then what’s to be done?
Alternative to Retention: Intervention
Instead of retention or social promotion, most educators recommend and follow a different approach for students who are falling behind: Intervention. Rather than focusing on whether academic retention is helpful, it is important for parents and schools to focus on identifying students who are struggling and providing early intervention. This focus on prevention is often called a 3-tiered intervention model.
- All students are screened for academic delays in all grades.
- “Interventions” are designed for students who are behind, while “enrichment” is provided for other students.
- For students who are significantly behind or are resistant to simple interventions, more intensive interventions are required. In some cases, special education may be appropriate if a disability exists.
When Retention May be Beneficial
Despite the statistics showing that retention is not a good practice, some individuals will still insist on retention. In those cases, there are a few factors to consider. Many schools will use the Light’s Retention Scale to determine if the student is a good candidate. No one factor alone should determine if the student is retained, but multiple factors that all point to the potential benefit. Students who are the best candidates to benefit from retention:
- are academically behind,
- have a summer birthday,
- are physically or socially immature,
- are in kindergarten or first grade,
- and have good parental involvement in school.
In most situations, grade retention is not the best solution. Parents and educators must carefully consider the potential consequences and exhaust all appropriate interventions first.