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Grade retention study underlines need for reform in education system

Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Age
Allison Shelley | Flickr

The American Educational Research Association’s recent study offers a fresh perspective on grade retention, especially as post-pandemic challenges disrupted traditional learning. However, while grade retention has benefits, researchers must address the systemic challenges that hinder student performance to avoid harming underrepresented communities.

The study used statewide data of third graders through seventh graders from the 2011–12 to 2016–17 school years and found that grade retention can be a valuable method in helping students keep up with their coursework.

Additionally, the study didn’t find that grade retention led to negative effects on the student’s attendance or behavior.

New York State has policies in place to improve third-grade reading proficiency. The Education Commission of the States released the Third Grade Reading Policies report in August 2012, stating NY is required to identify struggling readers in the P-3 grades by way of “reading assessment or diagnosis of reading deficiency.”

The assessments, which are a mix of state-mandated and locally-determined approaches, are too passive to have a significant effect on a student’s long-term academic success, especially in NYC’s Department of Education, which is the country’s largest and most diverse public school system.

If the student doesn’t pass the annual assessment screening, parents would be notified and students will then need to engage in a required intervention or remediation and tailored instruction designed specifically to their educational needs.

While retaining students a year back can give them the necessary time to master the skills, this practice disproportionately affects low-income and minority children due to lack of funding for schools to facilitate retention programs.

Educators and policy makers must recognize that schools in privileged communities are allocated more resources; therefore underfunded schools will be most heavily impacted by retention policies.

For example, a student who is in eighth grade and reliant on tailored instruction requirements to complete junior high, will be a year behind their peers who have already graduated and are preparing to complete their first year of high school.

Furthermore, the study found that the negative impact of retention starts in sixth grade or higher, especially for at-risk communities.

“It’s important that researchers continue to examine how these policies affect students of different backgrounds, grade levels, and geographic regions,” NaYoung Hwang, an associate professor who authored the study said.

Grade retention can have a worse impact on Black and Hispanic students or boys, who are at higher risk of disciplinary action.

Researchers need to take these findings into consideration as they recommend education policies to avoid having an adverse effect on at-risk students. The American education system needs to be reformed in order to bridge educational gaps and help students catch up while in their current academic year.

The study’s implications on high school students and those who are transitioning into higher education or the workforce, remain untouched. There are limitations in their study, as it does not examine outcomes before and after high school, or the effects on non-academic outcomes such as low self-esteem and peer relationships.

NYC would benefit from a multi-pronged approach beginning with enhanced teacher training. It’s important for the first step to focus on training teachers in early detection and intervention because it will prevent the need for grade retention in the first place.

The second step is for more personalized learning plans where teachers can rely on pre-made lesson plans for students who demonstrate the need for personalized academic attention.

Lastly there’s the data. There should be an analysis of student-level data to evaluate the effectiveness of these specific interventions provided to struggling students and on the continued monitoring of the longer-term effects of retention.

It is imperative that researchers continue exploring innovative, evidence-based and long-term approaches to ensure the success of all students, regardless of their individual challenges.

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