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.
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).