Pass or Fail: Retention Has Long-Term Effects on Students

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

It has been said that one single choice or event can alter the course of a person’s entire life. How would you feel if this decision was made for you based on completely misguided principles?

The long-term impact of retention has been studied extensively. Students overwhelming state that they consider retention to be a life-changing experience. Students often indicate that they experience a dramatic increase in stress and an even more pronounced dislike of school. Supporting an overwhelming amount of research, this signifies that the education system sometimes uses student retention as an intervention strategy for identification of a learning disability.

An assessment was made to identify low self-esteem signals for students in a research study conducted by Jessica Fanguy and Richard D. Mathis. Five of eight student participants and five of the eight parents commented that low self-esteem was an issue following the retention. One student’s father specifically indicated that they felt their child had low self-esteem and another parent indicated that their child clearly “felt bad about herself,” largely as a result of their retention experience. Two parents also reported that their children were giving up too easily and not believing in themselves, especially at school, in academic areas. One of the parents described how their child had called herself “stupid,” and one of the students indicated that they were aware that they did not set goals too high because they felt they could not achieve them. The student did not believe there was any point in setting challenging goals.

The researchers came to the conclusion that the students might well have had fewer self-esteem issues (and a greater inclination to set challenging goals) if they had not experienced retention and if it had not proved such a negative experience. Other students stated that the teachers had mistreated them, adding to the feelings of failure, but also making the students angry. They expressed their frustration at having to repeat a year. One student described dropping out of school to escape the resentment and sense of failure, as well as the victimization by teachers. According to Fanguy and Mathis, only two of the students interviewed demonstrated any signs of positive self-concepts; describing themselves in a positive light and feeling optimistic about their abilities.

Indicative of other studies that have assessed retention among students, Fanguy and Mathis clearly demonstrated that retention is destructive to a student’s development on many fronts. Although not all retained students are likely to experience such debilitating self-esteem issues, anger at retention, or oppression as the students in the study, the findings suggest that a range of problems apply, and often leave students with a sense of failure.

Socially promoted students experienced similar problems, including poor self-esteem, poor sense of self-worth, issues with peers, anger, and resentment toward teachers and school administrators, and general apathy toward school. In fact, some studies suggest that peer isolation or bullying is sometimes even more extreme for socially promoted students than for those who are retained. Without reasonable self-esteem, adolescents can prove unable to resolve the crisis of the identity during development. Thus, any experience debilitating to self-esteem is likely to leave students at a serious disadvantage.

In a relevant study, it was concluded that academic ability was one of the many factors used by adolescents to evaluate themselves. Failure at school can certainly compromise self-esteem and many students identify failure to pass a grade, the experience of retention, or even social promotion, as distinct evidence of academic failure.

Issues in the home can also factor into retention and social promotion problems, too, and several of the students featured in the study by Fanguy and Mathis cited lack of parental support as problematic. Two students even went so far as to say that they might have done better in school and potentially avoided retention completely, had they received more help from parents. The perceptions belong to students; whose own identity and conception of schoolwork undoubtedly play some role in the outcome of their academic efforts. There was, at least, a perceived need for students to have better, more extensive supports. The students believed their failing grades were at least partly due to inadequate support in school or at home. The discrepancy of perceived versus actual need is worth further investigation, particularly with regard to students’ lack of accomplishment.

Fanguy and Mathis also conclude that many of the students in the study lacked the skills to advocate for themselves. This potentially identifies another non-academic cost of retention, that affected students may already be reluctant to ask for help from school representatives or family when they need it.

If the decision to retain a student has been made, how much do you personally feel this choice will impact them both in the short and long term?

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