What is it?
Students who do not reach a given standard of learning at the end of a year are required to repeat the year by joining a class of younger students the following academic year. Also known as “grade retention”, “non-promotion” or “failing a grade”. For students at secondary school level, grade repetition is usually limited to the particular subject or classes that a student has not passed.
Repeating a year is relatively common in the USA where the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) recommended that students be required to demonstrate a set standard of achievement before progressing to the next grade level. Students can also be required to repeat a year in some countries in Europe including Spain, France and Germany. In Finland, students can repeat a year in exceptional circumstances, but this decision is made collectively by teachers, parents and the student rather than on the basis of end of year testing.
How effective is it?
Evidence suggests that in the majority of cases grade repetition is harmful to a student’s chances of academic success. In addition, studies consistently show greater negative effects for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who repeat a year, suggesting that the practice of grade repetition is likely to increase educational inequality. Repeating a year is also likely to lead to greater negative effects when used in the early years of primary school and for students from ethnic minorities.
On average, students who repeat a year fall behind peers of a similar level of achievement who move on. After one year, students who repeat a year are four months behind those who move on in terms of academic achievement. In addition, studies suggest that students who repeat a year are unlikely to catch up with peers of a similar level who move on, even after completing an additional year’s schooling. Studies also suggest that students who repeat a year are more likely to drop out of school prior to completion.
After one year, students who repeat a year are four months behind those who move on in terms of academic achievement. In addition, studies suggest that students who repeat a year are unlikely to catch up with peers of a similar level who move on, even after completing an additional year’s schooling. Studies also suggest that students who repeat a year are more likely to drop out of school prior to completion.
Although the overall average impact is negative, some studies suggest that in individual circumstances students can benefit, particularly in the short term. However, it does not appear to be easy to identify which students will benefit, suggesting that grade repetition is a significant risk.
There are a number of possible explanations for why grade repetition is so ineffective. One is that in its simplest form grade repetition just provides ‘more of the same’, in contrast to other strategies which provide additional targeted support or involve the use of a new pedagogical approach. In addition, it appears that grade repetition is likely to have a negative impact on the student’s self-confidence and belief that they can be an effective learner.
In an Australasian context, there remains little empirical support for the effectiveness of retention, and it has been found that repeating a year can be associated with negative academic, social and emotional outcomes. Nevertheless, retention continues to be used as an intervention strategy in both Australia and New Zealand, presumably because it requires little or no change to the school curriculum or structure. Younger students, boys, Indigenous students, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of repeating a year.
How secure is the evidence?
Overall, negative effects have been found consistently over the last fifty years in studies from Europe and North America, where much of the research has been conducted.
More recent meta-analyses using more rigorous designs have found less severe effects (between zero effect and negative 1 month). However, these studies have also been consistent with earlier research in showing that detrimental effects of grade repetition increase over time and that grade repetition has a disproportionately negative effect on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Overall, the evidence is extensive and reasonably consistent and is therefore estimated as strong.
What are the costs?
The costs are for an additional year of schooling. Annual costs of schooling vary widely according to school size, location and demographic composition. Costs are estimated at $8,000 per student per year based on the average funding provided to a student in a mainstream school in Victoria, excluding fixed costs such as those associated with maintaining school infrastructure.
What should I consider?
Negative effects are rare for educational interventions, so the extent to which students who repeat a year go backwards is striking.
Negative effects are disproportionately greater for disadvantaged students, for students from ethnic minorities and for summer-born students.
Have you considered alternative interventions such as intensive tuition or one to one support? They are considerably cheaper and may make repeating a school year unnecessary.
Negative effects tend to increase with time and repeating more than one year significantly increases the risk of students dropping out of school.