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Grade Retention vs. Social Promotion

Grade Retention vs. Social Promotion

For millions of families across the country, a tough decision is ahead – they’ve just come from yet another troublesome parent-teacher conference, and the news isn’t good. Their child is struggling, at the back of the class, not prepared for the next grade and the school is considering retaining him and keeping him at his current grade level next year.

Although policies vary across the country, in general, the final decision to retain or promote a child usually falls to the school. However, parents can have influential input on the options and need to take a stand before the decision is final.

Years ago grade retention was known as flunking, failing a grade, being held back. Whatever the terminology, it’s still a common scenario across the country today. Current national statistics are hard to come by and vary drastically, but an estimated 2.4 million American kids will be held back this year alone. Reviewers of the studies and statistics estimate that anywhere between 15 to 30 percent of American children will be retained a grade at least once.

The idea behind retention is to give kids an extra year to catch up and master the knowledge and skills needed at the next level. But hundreds of studies over the years show that, in general, retention does not work. Students who are retained have no consistent long-term academic advantage over similarly performing classmates who were promoted, and many studies show repeating a grade actually makes students fall further behind. In addition, retaining a child makes that student five times more likely to eventually drop out of school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Critics also argue that the practice is punitive, demoralizing, and expensive, costing taxpayers at least the price of re-educating students for another year. In 1998, that cost was estimated at $14 billion annually.

The alternative to retention isn’t any better. “Social promotion” is the practice of promoting kids to the next grade even though they haven’t mastered the necessary skills and knowledge. On Minnesota required standards, only 66% of students scored proficient in Math and 73% in Reading. Opponents of social promotion policy argue that it frustrates the struggling students because they simply can’t do the work, hinders the rest of the students who have to learn at a slower pace to accommodate the ill-prepared students, makes teachers less effective because they have to teach to many levels, gives parents a misguided sense that their child is progressing on target, and leads to high school graduates with the inability to read.

Unfortunately, for struggling learners, neither retention nor social promotion are great options, and alone, neither has much chance of moving a child toward the front of the class. One program proven to dramatically help is brain training. For many struggling students, weak cognitive skills are the root cause of the problem. Brain training is designed to strengthen those underlying mental skills to make learning faster and easier. After the training, students are often able to eliminate the need for accommodations, medications, remediation, and even special education programs. Because the key to successful brain training is intense, one-on-one training with immediate feedback, it’s unlikely these programs will ever be offered in the school setting. There simply isn’t enough time, teachers or funding.

Among the efforts currently used within the school system to prevent the need for retention or social promotion, the most successful efforts focus on early intervention. These programs identify potential learning issues early, sometimes even before kindergarten, and work to correct them before they become problems. Other practices designed to help kids catch up with their class include extended-hours learning services, extended school year, summer school programs, continuing education for teachers, smaller class sizes, tutoring, online tutorials, and parenting programs. All involve extra time and expenses.

Pushing for these extra services is one way parents can guide the future success of their child in school. Other beneficial efforts include requesting teachers who will work well with that particular child, advocating for more testing and special education services if necessary, and staying informed about progress or pitfalls. Perhaps the most important aspect is realizing that whether the decision is to retain or promote, learning is unlikely to get any easier without extra attention and help.

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