To Hold Back or Not to Hold Back

Cover image of teacher teaching children for a blog post

As summer approaches, many students and parents are celebrating the completion of another school year. Are all students prepared to move on to the next grade? Who decides if a student is at risk of being held back? 

Grade retention policies vary by state, and in 18 states, including California, this decision is ultimately made by state officials. We will provide a brief overview of how this kind of legislation came into being as well as discuss the research around retention, promotion, and intervention. Lastly, we will situate this issue in the larger COVID-19 moment, where nearly all students in the United States have fallen behind in reading and math (Politico).

History of Retention Policies 

Grade retention policies originated in California in 1998. Former Governor Pete Wilson signed a bipartisan measure requiring students of all grades to meet specific content standards in order to advance. In the early 2000s Republican school-choice policymakers adopted that idea and focused on the third grade, where students are no longer “learning to read but reading to learn” (Politico). The most influential of these initiatives was Florida’s third-grade retention law and statewide literacy program “Just Read, Florida!” that was implemented in 2002. 

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, many states issued education directives. However, no state had a comprehensive set of guidelines. This left issues like attendance, grades, assessments, promotion and retention, and graduation requirements up to local districts (EPIC). States like Tennessee have recently passed new laws dictating that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level on standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. These mandates were passed quickly and without community input. 

California Pupil Promotion & Retention Policy

California’s Pupil Promotion & Retention policy says that “a school can retain or promote a student without parent or guardian approval.” The district’s school board, though, must provide an appeal process for parents who disagree with the school’s decision (Daily News).

All school districts must have a policy around promoting students to the next grade. For example, in LA Unified School District, the expectation is that all students are prepared to move to the next grade level. Every school site has a Students Support and Progress Team (SSPT) that includes the student’s teacher. Teachers can sit down with parents and talk about student performance or what resources a student needs. That could mean offering summer school, additional tutoring, or another instructional program. 

The Research Behind Retention

Proponents of grade retention policies believe that the threat of retention forces schools to focus on early literacy, which has been steadily declining across America. Nevertheless, several hundred prominent studies show that retaining children does not produce higher achievement. It can actually damage self-esteem and increases the likelihood that students will drop out of school (CDE). 

Retention is a complicated and emotional issue for families. Parents overwhelmingly express that they want control over the decision. 

Retention in the Era of COVID-19

Pre-pandemic, many educators and administrators recommended intervention, not retention. Things have changed. COVID-19 has caused outsized hardship for families without the means for tutoring, learning pods, or parental assistance. Politico notes that “While it’s simple in theory to say all students held back should be given individualized progress plans, coaching and wraparound services to help them excel, school leaders and parents in majority Black and brown communities say the reality doesn’t always meet the promise.” 

Lawmakers in California are currently trying to push through a measure that creates a straightforward process for parents to keep their child in the same grade next school year. The goal is not to promote retention per se but to give parents and families control over their students’ futures and provide flexibility in what has been a turbulent year and a half of learning. 

This begs the question: Do students belong to the state, to the system? Or to the communities that raised them?  

by Elena D. 



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