Repeating a grade: The pros and cons

Grade retention or social promotion -- which is best? Read what the experts have to say.

By Colleen Stump, Ph.D.

Has anyone at school talked to you about retaining your child in the same grade? Have you been thinking about whether your child should be promoted on to the next grade level?

Reasons for retention

Grade retention is a very difficult and emotionally charged decision. It may be considered when a child:

In many schools today, tests are being used to determine whether a child will go on to the next grade or repeat the same grade. With the current push for high educational standards, more and more kids are facing the possibility of retention because they're not achieving test scores required for promotion. Retention is viewed as a way to ensure greater accountability — to guarantee the school is doing its job. In some cases, it's the new "get tough" policy to stop or reduce "social promotion" — automatically passing a child on to the next grade at the end of each school year.

Outcomes of retention

The idea of giving a child another year to "catch-up" and develop needed skills sounds like a positive alternative. However, research shows that outcomes for kids who are retained generally are not positive. In its 2003 "Position Statement on Student Grade Retention," the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports:

Kids with learning disabilities

Many kids with learning disabilities (LD) really struggle when taking district-adopted and state-adopted achievement tests. These tests require students to:

Test results may not show what your child actually knows and can do. Instead, they may tell you how well she does on this type of test. When test scores are used as the only basis for whether a child will be promoted to the next grade, kids with LD can be at a great disadvantage.

Factors to consider

So, the big question is how you decide if retention is right for your child. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Academic

Social/emotional

Alternatives to retention

The National Association of School Psychologists favors "promotion plus" interventions designed to address the specific factors that place students at risk for school failure. With that in mind, here are questions to ask yourself about alternatives to grade retention:

The big picture

Before retaining your child, carefully consider your responses to the above questions. Read some of the literature on retention, and talk with your child and other family members. Speak to the teacher and other school staff who know your child. Talk to the principal about state law and district policy on retention to discover who makes the final decision and what the appeal process is. If your child receives special education services, be sure the IEP team is involved.

Whatever is decided, carefully monitor your child's academic and behavioral performance during the next year. Be sure to work closely with her teachers to ensure that you and the school are giving her the support she needs.

Colleen Shea Stump, Ph.D., served as Chairperson of the Special Education Department at San Francisco State University, and was a professor at SFSU for 8 years. She currently works as Coordinator of Program/Staff Development and Compliance for the Seattle Public Schools.