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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Holding back students harms individuals and the school system as a whole


We’ve all heard the phrase “children are the future.” Whether you’ve heard the idea sung from Whitney Houston’s soulful voice, echoed in the words of Nelson Mandela or ad libbed by Jack Black in “School of Rock,” the profundity and truth of this statement is undeniable. For some children, however, this future may arrive slightly later than others — and that’s not a good thing.

The practice of holding young children back a grade is common nationwide. The objective of retention is supposedly to better the student’s aptitude for academic success by allowing them more time to learn and understand classroom material. These goals, however, are seldom achieved. Instead, these children tend to regress in social development, personal confidence and — you guessed it — academic ability.

A recent study out of Notre Dame University shows that students who are held back between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than their peers who do not repeat a grade. While still in school, these students may have already dropped out mentally, having been stigmatized as less intelligent than their peers. As a result, retained students may become apathetic or even disruptive in classroom settings. Findings from a study out of Loyola Marymount University suggest that retention is detrimental not only to the individual held back, but also to their classmates, lowering standardized achievement outcomes even among their peers.

These facts are hardly surprising. Forcing students to repeat a year in school is lazy policy enactment on the part of both educators and administrators. While proponents of the practice argue that holding children back allows them to get a better grasp on the material, this is seldom the case. More often than not, children who repeat a grade become discouraged and disinterested in academic achievement. The message to these children is clear: “You’re not smart enough to join your peers in the next grade.” But does that message reflect reality?

In 2009, India passed a law prohibiting schools from retaining students in grades one through eight. The results? Students who were automatically promoted to the next grade saw test scores rise, while test scores of their peers in countries that held students back continued to fall. In addition, the national dropout rate fell by an astounding 30 percent after the legislation was put into place.

An extensive study on retention from the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that retention seemed to have little impact on students’ mastery of the material. Younger students of similar testing levels showed almost identical progress whether they were retained or not. Students in higher grade levels were actually worse off because of it. In both instances, however, retained students were more likely to have eventually dropped out.

Additional research shows that students whose parents dropped out of high school are up to 7 times more likely to repeat grades — and thus more likely to drop out of high school themselves — than students whose parents had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. In a world where the rich already get richer and the poor already get poorer, we don’t need to see the same patterns of systemic inequality and cumulative advantage reflected in our publicly funded educational system.

Some argue that retention is necessary to ensure that children learn necessary material before advancing to more complex topics. While mastery of core materials is certainly important, there are many alternatives to holding children back. Students who struggle to master certain concepts may obtain tutoring or become involved in after-school or summer education programs. While these programs are an additional cost to public school systems, they eventually prove to be much less expensive than funding a student’s entire additional year of education (though, as it has been noted, these students will likely leave long before graduation. Insert conspiracy theory here).

This is not to say that children who struggle at an early age should simply be passed to the next grade without having learned the requisite material. Nor is it an advocation for the lowering of our academic standards. Rather, it is a revelation of the all too often overlooked fact that holding children back will not help achieve the desired ends of academic achievement and student development — in fact, it will make them nearly impossible to realize.

Russ Rumberger, University of California Santa Barbara professor of education, believes that these problems could be solved by simply addressing individual student struggles earlier in the teaching process. As Rumberger explained, “the typical situation is to simply repeat a grade and not necessarily address the reasons a kid was failing in the first place. The idea is to give them the extra interventions in the grade level that they are in, such that they are not going to be retained.”

Instead of working to solve individual student problems in academia, our educational policymakers have sidestepped the issue, creating standardized requirements which, instead of working to encourage student growth, serve only to marginalize already struggling groups while continuing to advance the privileged. We promote policies with titles like “No Child Left Behind” while simultaneously leaving struggling students in the dust. This practice is as tragic and unproductive as it is ironic, and it needs major reform.

Holding children back a grade is neither helpful nor productive. It is ultimately an outdated and ineffective practice that encourages learned helplessness and discourages individual student growth. Maybe educational policymakers should be held back a paycheck while they reevaluate what is obviously a deeply flawed system.

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