repeat a grade or just drop out?

Across the African countries I have worked in, I have been surprised at the high rates of grade repetition. In the United States, grade repetition is relatively rare (in my experience) whereas in Kenya almost every child I knew had repeated at least one grade.

Three researchers shed some light on the topic in a new working paper: Promotion with and without Learning: Effects on Student Enrollment and Dropout Behavior. They provide the arguments for both high grade repetition and low, a literature review, and some new research. Here’s the new stuff.

This study examines a different aspect of the debate about grade retention and promotion. In particular, we explicitly consider how parents process the information that grade promotion or retention provides about student achievement and integrate that information into parental decisions regarding their children’s schooling.4 In developing countries, even at the earliest grades, parents implicitly evaluate whether the value of their schooling dominates the opportunity costs of child time outside of school, and these assessments may be influenced by whether the child is perceived to be learning from school.

And the findings

Even more striking, largely illiterate parents appear to base their decisions of whether to send the child to school for another year largely on merit-based promotions. Promotions that are not correlated with measured student cognitive attainments have a much smaller positive impact on the probability of school continuation. This finding implies that parents make their decisions regarding a child’s continued schooling on the basis of perceived learning in the previous year, rather than on promotion or repetition per se. It would also suggest that if a child’s ability to learn in future years is reduced by being placed in a grade for which the child is unprepared, then promotion could lead to increased dropout.

More below

Here is the debate

Education policy-makers have long debated the relative benefits of social promotion versus grade retention. Social promotion is the policy of promoting students from one grade to the next, irrespective of their performance. Advocates claim that even low-performing students would benefit from staying with and learning from their peer group, whereas grade retention harms students’ self-esteem, does not improve their performance, and increases their likelihood of dropping out of school (Shepard and Smith 1989). To varying degrees, social promotion is practiced in countries such as Denmark, Japan, Korea, Norway, Sweden and many states in the United States. Countries such as France and most developing countries use grade retention extensively as a means to address student performance (Bonvin 2003): the practice of holding back underperforming students in the same grade until they attain minimum grade-appropriate skills. Proponents of grade retention believe that waiting until students have attained mastery of the curriculum will better prepare them for more advanced work at the higher grades whereas social promotion will doom them to falling ever farther behind their classmates.

Here is the evidence from poorer countries

In impoverished areas such as Brazil’s rural northeast, retained grade-two students performed more than half a standard deviation below average before repetition, but performed slightly above average after repetition (Gomes-Neto and Hanushek 1994).2 In Burundi, grade repetition at the end of the primary cycle is the accepted way by which sixth-grade students prepare for a very selective entrance examination that would give them a place in a greatly limited secondary school system (Eisemon et al. 1993).


4 thoughts on “repeat a grade or just drop out?”

  1. Unfortunately here in my area of America, repeating the grade isn’t so uncommon. I’d say at least 1/4 of the students in my school have repeated one or more grades between K-8 before they get to the HS level.

    NYC just ended social promotion in grades 3, 5, and 7 two years ago. Grades 4 & 8 require students to pass 4 state exams, in addition to the coursework. Despite all of the tests, I have yet to see improvement in the students’ academic achievement. I still have children who cannot read, multiply or divide in the 9th grade. It’s a large task, but very real.

    Within our school we’ve found that the most powerful tool in education is the use of peer tutoring. Have students teach their peers reinforces the tutor, while remediating the tutee’s academic needs. Yet it is crucial to that program to have students who are on similar social and emotional levels, as the majority of the success is that they can relate to each other.

  2. Wow. Thanks for the point on peer tutoring; I think that’s very interesting. The evidence on mixing students vs tracking by ability has led me to lean toward tracking, but that’s in the absence of explicit tutoring, which might help more. I’m intrigued.

  3. I have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence on both, and have found myself designing the school so that both exist–just at different times. I’m hoping by next year we have a schedule that allows for heterogeneous core classes on MWF, with differentiated (aka tracked for a semester) courses on TTh that meet students immediate academic needs. It’s more of a college-like schedule, but I think that in combination with organized study halls, appropriate electives or extracurriculars, and a solid peer tutoring program it really can afford all children the ability to graduate within 4 years. We’ll see.

    Who have you been reading on this topic? I’m intrigued.

  4. Adika Leo
    I am currently working on the research proposal on grade retention and social promotion in Kenya. As much as it is against the Government policy (Grade retention), it is an area that needs further exploration. Could we be doing harm to a student who has no adequate mastery of content in a current grade to move on to the next class? If you are keen to observe, the fact is downing on me that students from poor background could be unlucky to be retained more than their colleagues

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