More kids are repeating a grade. Is it good for them?

HARRISBURG, PA– As Braylon Price recalls, he struggled with pretty much everything during his first full school year of the pandemic. With minimal guidance and frequent interruptions, he had trouble keeping track of assignments and completing homework on time.

It was so bumpy that his parents asked him to repeat sixth grade — a decision they credit him with setting him on a better path.

“I didn’t really want to do it at first,” said Braylon, now 13. “But later in the year I figured it would probably be better for me if I did.”

The number of students being held back for a school year has skyrocketed across the country. Traditionally, experts have said that repeating a grade can affect children’s social life and academic future. But many parents, empowered by new pandemic-era laws, have asked for reps to help their children recover from the turmoil of distance learning, quarantines and school shortages.

According to an Associated Press analysis, 24 of the 28 states that provided data for the most recent academic year saw an increase in the number of students being held back. Customer retention more than doubled in three states – South Carolina, West Virginia and Delaware.

Pennsylvania, where the Price family lives, has passed pandemic-era legislation allowing parents to choose to have their children repeat. The following year, the number of retention students in the state increased by about 20,000 to over 45,000 students.

Braylon’s mother has no regrets about taking advantage of the new law.

“The best decision we could have made for him,” said Kristi Price, who lives in Bellefonte, in central Pennsylvania.

While the family’s two daughters managed to keep up with school despite limited supervision, Braylon struggled. He went back to face-to-face school for the first full school year of the pandemic, but it was “smothering,” his mother said. Students continued to be quarantined, and teachers tried to keep up with students studying at home, online and in hybrid models. That winter, Braylon suffered a spinal cord injury from wrestling, forcing him to return to distance learning.

At his sixth grade repeat, Braylon had an individual educational program that helped him focus better. It also helped get more personal attention from the teachers. Socially, the transition was easy as most of his friends were in lower grades or had gone to other schools.

Research in the educational world has been critical in getting students to repeat grades.

The risk is that students who are retained have a two-fold increased risk of dropping out, said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Human Capital Research Collaborative, citing studies involving students in Chicago and Baltimore.

“Kids see it as punishment,” Reynolds said. “It decreases their academic motivation and does not increase their educational progress.”

But retention advocates say none of the research was conducted during a pandemic, when many kids struggled with Zoom classes and some stopped logging in.

“So many kids have struggled and had a lot of problems,” said Florida State Sen. Lori Berman, a Delray Beach Democrat. Berman authored legislation to make it easier for parents to apply for preschool for fifth graders to repeat a grade in the 2021-22 school year. “I don’t think there’s any stigma to holding your kid back at this point.”

In general, parents can request that children be restrained, but the ultimate decision rests with school leaders, who make decisions based on factors such as academic progress. California and New Jersey also passed laws making it easier for parents to require their children to repeat a grade, although the option only became available last year.

In suburban Kansas City last year, Celeste Roberts opted for another round of second grade for her son, who she says was already struggling before the pandemic. When virtual learning was a failure, he spent the year learning at a slower pace with his grandmother, a retired teacher who bought goats for fun.

Roberts said repeating the year helped her son academically, and his friends hardly noticed.

“Even with their peers, some of them would say, ‘Wait, shouldn’t you be in third grade?’ And he’s just like, ‘Well, I didn’t go to school because of COVID,'” she said. “And they’re like, ‘OK, cool.’ You know, they move on. It’s not a thing. So socially it was really great. Even with the parent groups. Everyone just says, ‘Great. Do what your child has to do.'”

Ultimately, there shouldn’t be just two ways to repeat a grade or move on to the next, said Alex Lamb, who has done research on grade retention as part of her work with the Center for Education, Policy Analysis, Research and Evaluation at the university of Connecticut to support school district counseling.

“None of those options are good,” she said. “A great option is to let students move on and then roll out some of these supports that are research-backed, effective, and that allow for academic and social-emotional growth for students, and then communities.”

In the Fox Chapel Area School District of Pennsylvania, two students were retained at the behest of educators, while eight families decided their students would repeat a grade. Another six discussed the new legislation with the school and eventually decided against withholding their students.

“As a school district, we take retention very seriously,” said Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac. She said the district involves parents, a team of educators, school counselors and principals to decide what’s best for each child.

Price says keeping Braylon helped him get an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The special school schedule gave him more support as he navigated sixth grade again. Reflecting on the difference between rounds one and two of sixth grade, Braylon said he felt the extra support was instrumental, noting that he sometimes liked having personal help from teachers.

“You didn’t really do that in online school,” he said. “You did the work and then you just handed it in.”

He doesn’t want to get the answer, he said, but guided enough that he can find out for himself.

“I think because of the pandemic, we as parents were able to see how much he was struggling and we could see that he was struggling to stay afloat and that he needed more help to be successful on his own,” Price said.


Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Schultz is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. More kids are repeating a grade. Is it good for them?

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