To Repeat or Not: States Wrestle with Holding Students Back

To Repeat or Not: States Wrestle with Holding Students Back

Holding students back in school has long been a controversial topic. Grade retention was common in the one-room schoolhouses of the 19th century because there were more formal agreed-upon ideas about the academic content students should be able to master at each grade level. Then, in the 1930s, holding students back—a practice known as grade retention—became increasingly frowned upon. According to researchers, this attitude shift can be attributed to school communities becoming more complex and populous, as well as the emergence of new "attitudes about children and their social and emotional development."

Today, many states continue to lean toward retaining students deemed underprepared, despite greater awareness of the pitfalls associated with holding students back due to lagging academic skills. For instance, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond noted that keeping struggling students from advancing with their same-age peers can lead to "academic failure, behavioral problems, and low self-esteem." The group Fair Test, which advocates against the overuse of standardized testing, echoes Darling-Hammond’s concerns on its website. Requiring students to repeat a grade because of low test scores just doesn't work, Fair Test researchers argue, citing evidence that shows such policies are "counterproductive."

However, opposition to grade retention hasn't stopped the practice from popping up repeatedly, particularly in the context of third-graders and their reading skills. Because federal education policy requires all third-graders to be assessed in math and reading, this grade level often comes under greater scrutiny. Also, as teachers know, third grade is the time when students are supposed to switch from learning how to read to "reading to learn." Writing on the Scholastic website, reading teacher Laura Robb calls this benchmark a "persistent myth" and argues that many students need further instruction in reading basics even after third grade.


Retention in Mississippi

Mississippi is one state where legislators have implemented an aggressive, literacy-based policy of grade retention, fueled by fears that students were being pushed along without the requisite skills. Several years ago, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed the Third Grade Gate initiative into law, which promised to "improve literacy achievement by ending social promotion of third-grade students who are not reading on grade level," according to a news report. At the bill’s signing, Bryant expressed concern that nearly half of all third-graders in Mississippi did not score in the "Proficient" range on state accountability tests, and argued that pairing struggling readers with intervention strategies rather than social promotion would be "transformational." Interestingly, Bryant was held back as a third-grader because of his own struggles with reading.

Today, thousands of Mississippi third-graders are held back each year due to their literacy skills. A 2017 article from the Hechinger Report shows that this action is being taken along with a comprehensive mix of intervention strategies, such as building a stronger reading foundation before students reach third grade, adding literacy coaches, and providing increased professional development for teachers. Students are also reportedly pulled out of class for extra literacy instruction, but the stakes remain high: If those who previously failed don't pass the state test on their second try, they can be held back a second time.

The fear of being held back despite a year's worth of strong academic work accompanied Mississippi's grade retention policy. "The third grade promotion plan has placed immense stress on everyone in the system," wrote reporter Nick Chiles. Zanysha Amos, a girl Chiles profiled in 2015, was a bundle of nerves before the state test, and parents can feel these nerves as well as students. This stress may be why groups such as the International Literacy Association (ILA) have called for grade retention plans to be "based on a more complete picture of a student's literacy performance," including "informal and formative assessments."


A holistic approach to assessment

The IRA's position paper on using high-stakes tests to determine a student's literacy skill level includes the concern that standardized assessments provide "limited opportunities for students to demonstrate the full extent of their literacy knowledge." Instead, the association shows a preference for classrooms driven by teacher expertise, where "ongoing, low-stakes assessments"—such as "focused observations" and varied reading and writing work—are used to inform teaching and learning. Also, IRA staff argues that "ongoing, appropriate, research-based intervention" may yield a laser focus on literacy skills without relying on grade retention.


Seventeen states currently have grade retention policies, many of which are based on a student's reading level. As Chris Weller noted in a 2016 Business Insider article, that's because "literacy is more black and white—you can read or you can't." Weller also found that holding kids back tends to be driven by psychology rather than solid evidence. He wrote that although it may "feel wrong" to send kids ahead when they are behind academically, 40 years of research shows that personalized interventions are often more successful (and less expensive) than simply repeating a year of the same grade.

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