Don’t make student failure impossible—sometimes it’s necessary

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Hub, June 29, 2023
Don’t make student failure impossible—sometimes it’s necessary

With the schoolyear now over, students have received their final grades. And if you’re a student in the Toronto school district, it’s not easy to fail. In fact, you have to really work at it.

According to official Toronto District School Board policy, a student will be held back “only after all alternatives are exhausted and only in exceptional circumstances.” Not only does a student need to fail every single core course, but the student’s overall average must be at Level 1 (the lowest possible level) across all subjects. With requirements like these, it’s almost more difficult to fail a grade than to pass it.

Considering that other school boards in Canada have similar policies, repeating a grade is rare in most Canadian schools, at least at the K-8 level. Most school administrators oppose holding students back and argue that grade retention damages student self-esteem, claiming that research overwhelmingly supports this contention.

However, research on this issue is far from clear-cut. In fact, there’s evidence that making students repeat a grade appears to benefit them. For example, since 2013 the state of Mississippi has required Grade 3 students to repeat the year if they score below a set threshold on the state reading exam. Since this policy was implemented, Mississippi has recorded substantial improvements in student reading outcomes.

To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that repeating a grade was the direct cause of Mississippi’s improved performance. Students who repeat the year also receive intensive reading instruction, and it’s possible that Mississippi’s academic improvement has more to do with these interventions than with grade retention.

Nevertheless, even if this is the case, the data still show that being held back a year did not negatively impact most students. Thus, there’s no reason to assume that grade retention is always harmful.

However, while a blanket ban on grade retention is obviously a mistake, it would be equally problematic to mandate rigid promotion standards. If a student works hard and falls slightly short of the grade level standard, it makes far more sense to let that student progress to the next grade with their peers than to hold that student back.

On the other hand, a student who intentionally does little work throughout the schoolyear is a prime candidate for repeating a grade. Such a student would likely benefit from spending an additional year at the same grade level.

In short, deciding whether to make a student repeat a grade is something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. This means genuinely looking at all the factors and making a decision in the best interests of the student. It’s not a time for ideological rigidity.

It’s also important to remember that contested issues in education cannot always be resolved by experiments. Of course, there’s systematic inquiry and research in education, but often the results of the research are not strong enough to identify exactly what teachers and administrators ought to do in each situation. This is certainly the case when deciding whether to make a student repeat a grade.

Because schools are in the business of educating people, not robots, we must allow for flexibility. This is true not just in individual classrooms but also at the school board level. It’s unrealistic to expect all schools to take an identical approach to grade retention. It makes far more sense to allow for a variety of options from which parents can choose.

Thus, parents who feel that their children would benefit from stricter promotion standards can enroll their children in schools that enforce these standards while those who believe their children would be harmed by being held back can choose a school that promotes them with their peers.

Obviously, schools must be held accountable, but there’s no need to mandate the specific educational philosophy of each and every school. There should be room for many educational approaches that help students to learn.

We must not get sidetracked by the ongoing debate over whether grade retention is a good idea. Rather, let’s focus on whether students are learning the curriculum. That’s what matters most.