Grade Retention: Are Our Students Failing or Is Our Public Education System Failing?

            I have recently had the privilege to work with a family whose daughter has a rare medical condition. This condition causes learning difficulties along with a host of additional challenges for both the child and her parents. As the school year comes to an end, the girl, who is nine years old, should be preparing to move on to fourth grade. But she is still in first grade. This child has been retained twice so far—she has been in kindergarten two times and first grade two times—and now is at risk of being in first grade for the third time because she continues to struggle academically. This situation begs the following questions: does grade retention actually work? Or is it a tool for cash- and resource-strapped school districts to avoid providing adequate (read: expensive) special education services to students who need them?

            To put it simply, grade retention does not work. Studies have shown that grade retention has minimal benefits and may increase the child’s risk for dropping out of school before graduating from high school. And grade retention is an expensive “solution” to students’ academic failures: school districts (and, therefore, taxpayers) are paying for students to repeat a grade that they have already been enrolled in. However, grade retention is likely seen as an easier option than providing robust special education services.

            Special education is complicated, but here is a brief overview for the purposes of understanding why many school districts may prefer to just retain a child rather than provide him or her with the special education services that he or she needs. Before getting special education services, a child must be evaluated by a psychologist or a psychometrist (a professional who administers and scores tests for things like special education). Even if a parent has an outside evaluation completed, many times school districts will pay for their own evaluation. Once the evaluation is finished, the school must convene a team to determine what, if any, services are warranted given the diagnosis (or diagnoses). This team can consist of the child’s parents, general and special education teachers, school administrators, district level special education staff, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, outside service providers, etc. The team drafts a document called an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”), which contains annual goals for a child. Throughout the school year, the team must monitor the child’s progress towards those goals and, if the child is not making adequate progress, the team should tweak the child’s IEP to better meet his or her needs. Creating an IEP is a complicated process and involves working with (and paying) many experts to weigh in on what is best for the child. To be clear, federal law does not require that all students receiving special education services under an IEP be promoted from grade to grade; however, the IEP has to be reasonably calculated to allow the child to progress despite of his or her disability.

            Because providing special education services is time-consuming and pricy, it is likely that many school districts decide to retain children to see if that will solve whatever academic problems they are having instead of seeing if an underlying disability is causing the issue. The problem is that this practice rarely works and, in the end, the school district may end up having to provide special education services anyway because the retention is not successful. This practice is detrimental to the students involved because grade retention (1) has been shown to ostracize students socially due to the fact that they are older (and, in some cases, are significantly older) than the other students in their classes, which can negatively impact their self-esteem, and (2) delays when a child is able to receive critical special education services to address underlying disabilities. Schools should shift their perspective on how they view children who are at risk of being retained. Is the child “bad” and therefore has failing grades? Perhaps that child has an emotional disability that affects his or her behavior. Does the child continue to struggle academically even though he or she has an IQ within the normal range? Maybe that child has a specific learning disability. Children have unique learning needs and therefore grade retention—which is a one size fits all attempt at solving underlying issues—is not an appropriate solution to meet those unique needs. Simply retaining students and hoping that they will get caught up does not get at the root of why these children are struggling.

            Here at the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Educational Opportunities Campaign provides legal services to families whose children have been retained and are continue to struggle in the classroom or are at risk of being retained. If you are anyone else you know is dealing with an issue relating to grade retention, please contact our Biloxi office at 228-435-7284.

Amelia Huckins is an Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by the Friends and Family of Philip M. Stern