Special Report
Student Achievement

Tens of Thousands of Students May Have to Repeat a Grade. Should They?

By Catherine Gewertz — May 24, 2021 8 min read
Mia Halthon's daughter, Terra Jones, has struggled with remote learning. Pictured here in their Detroit, Mich., home on May 21, 2021.
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After more than a year waging uphill battles to connect with their schooling, tens of thousands of students now face having to repeat a grade in 2021-22. It’s a choice an unusually high number of principals, district leaders, and parents anticipate making, despite warnings in stacks of research that it often doesn’t help—and can harm—children.

In an April survey of teachers and administrators by the EdWeek Research Center, 42 percent said they expected that more students would repeat a grade than would have done so before the pandemic. Nearly 7 in 10 said that more students would have to retake a course. A nationally representative sample of 1,061 school and district leaders and teachers responded to the survey.

The prospect of a spike in retentions flies in the face of a broad-based consensus among educators that wherever possible, it’s best to move students forward into next year’s content, with carefully calibrated supports. It also raises the specter that the children hurt most by the pandemic will fall farther behind, since Black, Latino, and low-income students are typically retained disproportionately.

“I do think we should be concerned,” said Allison Socol, the assistant director of P12 policy for the Education Trust, a research-and-advocacy group. “States and districts should use serious caution with retention policies.”

Confronting ‘heartbreaking’ choices and handing more power to parents

Educators have watched with alarm as absenteeism and course-failure rates soared during the COVID-19 crisis. Students’ schoolwork has often lost duels with family crises, poor internet, and their own sagging motivation. States and districts eased up on grading and credit requirements last year, but gradually returned to regular practices this year, making it tougher for students to clear the academic bar.

At Good Hope Middle School in West Monroe, La., the issue weighs on Principal Twainna Calhoun.

In a normal year, maybe 5 percent of her 600 students might repeat a grade. Now about 30 percent are failing enough courses that they should be retained under the district’s state-required “pupil progression plan.”

It’s “heartbreaking,” and the direct result of a school year littered with pandemic-driven interruptions, as well as a hurricane, she said. Calhoun worries that retaining so many students will swell each grade level’s rosters and stretch her teaching resources thin. She’s afraid her students might get discouraged and disengage from school.

But she sees few options. Calhoun said her district is using federal stimulus money to offer a voluntary STEM-themed summer school program, but she doubts it will fill enough of the missing blanks for her students.

Schools nationwide and parents are confronting these decisions. Many parents want the option of holding their kids back. In a March poll by the National Parents Union, 63 percent said they wanted their schools to let them decide whether to move their children to the next grade.

Mia Halthon and her daughters pictured outside their Detroit, Mich., home on May 21, 2021.

Mia Halthon, who lives in Detroit, is considering having her 11-year-old daughter repeat 5th grade next year. She feels awful about it and knows it could be traumatic, she said. But she’s also afraid to let her child walk into middle school unprepared.

“This semester we are just failing,” Halthon said. “I just can’t push her on. I would be doing her an injustice. What if we push her through and she gets to high school and fails, and doesn’t graduate?”

In Newark, N.J., Tiffany Newton will usher her daughters on to 4th and 7th grades next year. They’ve excelled in learning at home during COVID, she said, so there is no need to hold them back.

In retention decisions, parents traditionally play the receivers of bad news: Their child’s school informs them of its decision to withhold promotion. But that’s shifting. Parents are now poised to exert more influence on promotion decisions.

Pennsylvania and a handful of other states are considering legislation that would put parents in the driver’s seat on retention decisions for the fall. And advisers who work closely with districts say parent input is more important than ever now, when so many teachers wrestle with how best to help students who show up as little more than blank squares on a Zoom screen.

States and districts are still figuring out their positions on retention

Despite the early signs, a big wave of retentions and course-repeats might not materialize.

Good summer school programs or tutoring could help students catch up before fall. Districts or states might again relax policies; several states are already weighing legislation that would suspend or soften retention requirements tied to 3rd grade reading performance. Schools might simply be overwhelmed by the logistics of holding hundreds of students back.

But district and school leaders and teachers must still wrestle with how to respond to the issues that triggered the retention possibilities to begin with.

Many districts have already staked out their turf on this issue: They don’t believe retention is a good way to address unfinished learning, and they’re opting instead to keep students moving forward with grade-level content, filling in the missing pieces as they go.

Most states have yet to issue updated guidance to districts about how they should respond to unfinished learning in the fall of 2021. Many are still more focused on how to provide summer learning opportunities. But the consensus thinking from last year, exemplified in guidance from organizations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, emphasizes moving students forward, rather than going back to cover all or most of last year’s material.

That view is still the dominant one, said Shannon Glynn Thomas, who leads curriculum and instruction discussions with a CCSSO network of 25 state-level academic officers. “They are really emphasizing getting kids into the grades they’re entering and getting them access to that grade-level content,” she said.

Nebraska has gotten out front with a short statement of principle that’s getting traction in other states. The four-page paper recasts “learning loss” as “unfinished teaching and learning,” and emphasizes “renewal” and “acceleration” instead of remediation. Nebraska is now offering PD to help teachers operationalize its ideas.

Chart showing the various ways that the Nebraska Department of Education is working to reframe the conversation about disrupted learning.

Key lesson from research on retention: Don’t do the same thing again

The research on retention is littered with cautions and question marks.

Repeating a grade can damage students’ confidence and subject them to bullying. Sometimes it can help academically, but those gains quickly fade.

Some studies show that holding elementary students back can work, but only if they get key supports, such as tutoring, summer programs, or high-quality teachers. Studies of secondary students are more negative: Older students who repeat a grade are more likely to disengage from school or drop out.

More recently, a few studies have offered a rosier outlook for retention. One, which examined the effect of Florida’s law requiring 3rd grade retention for students reading below grade level, found that students who were retained entered high school on stronger academic footing and got better grades than students who weren’t retained, and weren’t any less likely to graduate.

Martin West, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor who co-authored that study, noted that the Florida students who were retained didn’t just “do the same thing and expect a different result” in their repeated year. The state required them to attend summer reading camp, be assigned to effective teachers, and have individual learning plans.

With caveats like that in mind, West said he believes that retention, handled well, can be an effective tool for some students. But it should be used thoughtfully and very sparingly, he said.

Research shows what works to help children recoup missed learning. Closely tracking students for signs of trouble, using high-dosage tutoring to catch them up, and extending time for learning can all play roles. The EdResearch for Recovery Project at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform highlights many of the same practices—and specifically discourages retention—in its bid to bring data and evidence to districts’ COVID-19 recovery decisions.

Tiffany Newton with her daughters, Saraya (left) and Sahnye Newton-Lawson (right), in downtown Maplewood, NJ on May 21, 2021.

Responding well to unfinished learning is complex and ‘messy’

The Lawrence, Mass., district pioneered “acceleration academies” to help its students stay on track. Twice a year, at the February and April breaks, students who need extra help may attend weeklong sessions in math or English/language arts. The program has been running since 2013, along with an extended-day schedule that has nearly all children in school for 7 1/2 to 8 hours a day.

Together, those strategies have made retention all but unnecessary in Lawrence, said Mary Toomey, the district’s assistant superintendent. This year, the district is adding a heftyand voluntary—summer program. It combines a morning of academics with afternoon activities like sailing or swimming.

“We are a high-poverty district,” said Toomey. “We don’t want to use punitive methods like retention. We can’t afford to do anything that might impact a child’s decision on whether to persevere or drop out.”

As districts discuss the best ways to help students recover from interrupted learning during the pandemic, conversations often devolve into either/or thinking.

Emily Freitag, the CEO of Instruction Partners, a nonprofit that advises school districts, has noticed that many educators put themselves into one of two camps: acceleration or remediation.

But those terms can mean very different things to different people, and they risk oversimplifying a complex problem and the nuanced solutions it requires, Freitag said. She urges schools to think through learning-recovery strategies subject by subject, grade by grade, and student by student. Responding to missed content in 7th grade science is different from doing so in 2nd grade reading or 5th grade math, Freitag said.

“There is not going to be one approach that works. It will depend on the content and grade span,” Freitag said. “The unfortunate challenge is that this is messy. It’s messy and complicated.”

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