Grade Retention

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Grade retention, better known as "staying back", "being held back" or "repeating", has been the topic of much debate within the educational system. The controversy which surrounds this long-standing issue has been reinforced by such topics as the recent endorsement of academic standards. Research indicates that "the rate of retention has increased by approximately 40% in the last 20 years with as many as 15% of all American students held back each year and 30-50% held back at least once before ninth grade" (Dawson, 1998). These discouraging statistics pose copious problems within a school system. The difficulties can be appreciated at the organizational level, as well as inside the classroom and, most troubling, within the individual students. The consequences, both positive and negative, reverberate throughout the school system. Grades retention is an issue which requires a prodigious amount of examination and should be considered carefully and thoroughly.

Formally, grade retention is defined as the practice of requiring a student who has been in a given grade level for a full school year to return at that level for a subsequent year (Jackson, 1975). Unofficially, the practice is employed as a tool to enhance the academic or developmental growth for students who are unable to meet the curriculum requirements due to a variety of reasons. These reasons can include decreased cognitive functioning, physical immaturity, social-emotional difficulties and failure to pass standardized assessments. A child may be considered for retention if he has poor academic skills, is small in stature, is the youngest in the class, has moved frequently, has been absent repeatedly, does poorly on prescreening assessments or has limited English-language skills (Robertson, 1997). Additionally, the typical profile of a retained child is more likely to reveal an elementary school-aged student who is a black or Hispanic male with a late birthday, developmental delay, attentional problems, low socioeconomic status, single-parent household with a parent who either does not or cannot intervene on behalf of the child (Robertson, 1997; Mattison, 2000). Also seen in retained children are the predictive health factors of hearing and speech impairments, low birth weight, enuresis and exposure to cigarette smoke within the home (Byrd & Weitzman, 1994).

Statistics depict a bleak picture of grade retention. Annually, it is estimated that roughly 15% of students are retained, representing approximately 2.4 million children (Jimerson, 2001; Mattison, 2000). In general, children who repeat a grade are 30% more likely to drop out of school as compared to their promoted peers and the retention trend is increasing, up approximately 12% from 1980 to 1992 (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Retained students have an approximately 60% chance of dropping out of school by the 12th grade and those students who have been retained twice increase their chance to 90% (Parker, 2001). Rumberger (1995) identified grade retention as the single most powerful predictor of dropping out. It is estimated that 40% of the total number of repeaters are from the lowest SES brackets compared to only 8.5% from the highest SES groups (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Research by Meisels (1993) discovered that more than two-thirds of all retentions occur before fourth grade. These discouraging statistics also come at an enormous expense; grade retention costs approximately 10 billion dollars per year (Natale, 1991). To counteract the discouraging data about grade retention, many school systems have instilled the policy of social promotion. The recent negativism surrounding the tradition of repeating a grade portends a return to social promotion. Social promotion, the antithesis of grade retention, is the automatic passing of a student on to the next grade at the end of the school year, despite his or her academic standing. It is widely acknowledged that socially promoted students...
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