What is it?
Repeating a year is also known as “grade retention”, “non-promotion”, or “failing a grade”. Students who do not reach a given standard of learning at the end of a year are required to repeat that year of learning by joining a class of younger students the following academic year. 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 very rare in the UK, but it 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 European countries including Spain, France, and Germany. In some countries, such as 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, suggesting that the practice 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, for students from ethnic minorities, or for students who are relatively young in their year group (often referred to as 'summer born' students in the US and European literature).
Students who repeat a year make an average of four months’ less academic progress over the course of a year than students who move on. 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 some 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.
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?
There are no studies that have used an experimental design. However, overall, there are a number of high quality evidence reviews which show that negative effects have been found consistently over the last fifty years in both Europe and North America. The evidence is therefore rated as moderate.
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 make less progress is striking.
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 (see One to one tuition).
Negative effects tend to increase with time and repeating more than one year significantly increases the risk of students dropping out of school.