Special Education and Grade Retention

I have spoken with many parents through the years concerning grade retention – whether their child was in regular or special education.  Some parents as well as educators believe that grade retention is beneficial to the child.  They believe that it will somehow improve the child’s academic performance, maturity, and social skills.  When I inform the parents and/or educators that this belief is contrary to the bulk of research about grade retention and its  harmful effects, they act with surprise.  Unfortunately most parents and some educators continue to express ignorance of the harmful effects of grade retention.

In an Atlanta Journal Constitution editoral by Professor Amy Reschly, University of Georgia, College of Education on Monday, August 12, 2013, she debunks the theory and practice that grade retention is beneficial to students. According to Profesor Reschly, widely accepted research indicates almost universal negative effects of retention – compared to students that were socially promoted.  One study found no difference in academic performance between those students that were retained and promoted in grades first through fifth grades once the students were in middle school.  So if grade retention is ineffective for students, then who does it persist?

Professor Reschly also voiced her concern  that the economic costs of grade retention is enormous. For every year that is added to a student’s education, it is reported that the annual average expenditure for each student in 2008-2009 was $10,694.00. If you multiply this figure by the number of students that are retained each year nationally, then the figure grows into billions of dollars.

In Georgia, students without disabilities may be retained for a variety of reasons including the failure to pass all sections of the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) that are administered in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades as a high stakes test. In other words,if the student does not pass all sections of the CRCT in the 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades, then he or she is likely to be retained. For students with special needs, the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) committee determines whether the student will be retained. The failure of the student to pass all sections of the CRCT in 3rd, 5th and 8th grades does not automatically result in their retention.  On the other hand, the failure of a student with disabilities to pass all sections of the CRCT in 3rd, 5th and 8th grades will almost certainly result in their retention. Of course, regular education students may be retained because of poor report cards, poor attendance, lack of social maturity and social skills, and other reasons.  The typical student that is retained is likely to repeat kindergarten, first and fifth grades and sometimes 8th grade.  This may also be true for students with special needs. I have reviwed educational records of special needs students to find that were often retained  in kindergarten and first grades. Why? This question escapes me because there is almost never a compelling educational reason to retain a student with special needs, particularly because the student can attend public school through age twenty-years of age.

So what are the alternatives to grade retention? One is early screening and interventions for students that are experiencing academic, behavioral and other educational deficits at school. If appropriate strategies, interventions and supports are introduced early on in the student’s educational career (e.g. kindergarten and first grade), then grade retention is less likely.  What we all need to do is disabuse parents and educators of the notion that grade retention is helpful.  Almost always grade retention is not helpful to the student. Pass the word onto others so that we can decrease grade retention and educate the public of the negative effects of grade retention.