Story time: Jane Santucci reads to students as part of the United Way of the Wabash Valley Reading Neighbors program. The literacy program was made possible with support from the Vigo County School Corp. Student Learning Recovery Grant and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. It is one of many programs aimed at addressing COVID-related learning loss. Submitted photo
Story time: Jane Santucci reads to students as part of the United Way of the Wabash Valley Reading Neighbors program. The literacy program was made possible with support from the Vigo County School Corp. Student Learning Recovery Grant and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. It is one of many programs aimed at addressing COVID-related learning loss. Submitted photo
Holding a child back in school for a year is a difficult decision for educators and parents, yet several states are seeing increases in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

Twenty-two of the 26 states that provided data for the recent academic year, as well as Washington, D.C., saw an increase in the number of students who were held back, according to the Associated Press.

Indiana saw some increase in those repeating a grade in 2020-21 compared to the year prior; the highest number and percentage of grade retentions occur at kindergarten and first grade.

For students enrolled in 2020-21 and held back the following year, 3,646 Hoosier children in kindergarten were retained, or 4.8% of the total statewide, and 2,041 first grade students, or 2.6% of the total number of first-graders statewide.

Those numbers and percentages were somewhat higher than students enrolled in 2019-20 and held back in 2020-21. For those years, 3,201 kindergarten students were retained, or 4% of the total; in first grade, 1,494 students were retained, or 1.9% of the total.

In actual student numbers, those held back increased 36% in 202122 for first grade (up 547 students) and 13.9% for kindergarten (up 445 students).

“There is an increase. We see that through COVID,” said Holly Lawson, Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman. The state will gain additional data in late October on retention numbers between the 2021-22 and the 202223 school years.

Lawson pointed out that first-grade enrollment did jump by about 800 between 2019-20 and 2020-21; at the same time, it also declined significantly in kindergarten, as many families opted to keep children out of kindergarten in 2020-21.

For 2021-22, kindergarten enrollment in Indiana grew 5.25%.

Traditionally, experts have said repeating a grade can hurt kids’ social lives and academic futures, according to AP. “But many parents, empowered by new pandemic- era laws, have asked for do-overs to help their children recover from the tumult of remote learning, quarantines and school staff shortages,” AP reported.

In Indiana, the General Assembly has not recently passed any new laws on this topic, Lawson said. “This is a local decision, to be made between the school and families.”

It can be beneficial

The Vigo County School Corp. saw an increase in those held back from 201920 to 2020-21, with numbers starting to decline in 2021-- 22. Educators say that in some cases, repeating a grade is beneficial. Teresa Stuckey, a former elementary principal and now director of elementary education for the Vigo County School Corp., has some perspective.

“A teacher’s decision to recommend grade retention does not come easily. Many factors are considered and often evidence is gathered from several educators who impact that child,” she said. In most cases, teachers and parents begin discussing the possibility of the recommendation well before the end of the year. Although the talk of retention is usually not a surprise to parents, it is still an agonizing decision.

“As a former principal, I know how teachers deliberate and put not only their professional expertise, but also their heart, into finalizing the request to parents,” said Stuckey, also the district director of communication.

One of the biggest reasons that parents agree to retention is the realization that the child’s physical, emotional, or academic development level is delayed in comparison to others in their grade level. “We often see a child thrive when given that extra year to gain confidence and build their skills as a potential leader in their class,” Stuckey said. Other parents sometimes give testimonials of the positive benefits “and we, educators, often have success stories to share, which give parents confidence to accept retention as a positive in their child’s academic career,” Stuckey said.

Student retention numbers did increase in the height of COVID. In 2019-20, 229 out of 6,771 were held back, or 3.38% of K-5 students. In 2020-21, the district held back 439 students, or about 6.9% of K-5 enrollment (6,400).

In 2021-22, numbers started to drop. The district retained 332 students, or 5.2% of K-5 enrollment. From 2019-20 to 2020-21, numbers retained increased from 229 to 439, almost doubling. Stuckey says that the pandemic “was likely a factor” for the increase.

Does grade retention help, or hurt?

Kevin Bolinger, Indiana State University professor of education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, says that as with most things, there are multiple perspectives to consider.

From a teacher’s perspective, he said, designing classroom instruction is easier and more effective when all of the students are at the same skill level.

If, for instance, you have students who read at a first grade level and fifth-grade level in the same class, it requires more individual interventions, and due to the national teacher shortage (the most pressing issue at the moment), there are less resources than are necessary. From a student’s perspective, retention may become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research shows that homogeneous grouping benefits the high-end learners, whereas heterogeneous grouping benefits the lowend learner.

If you remove a child from his/her higher achieving peers, you service the teacher and students who are at level, but disservice the students who are underperforming, he said.

“Which group do you direct policy toward? Not an easy question,” Bolinger said.

Another perspective

Carrie Ball, Indiana State University professor and chair of the department of Teaching and Learning, said research is “really mixed” on potential benefits and drawbacks.

“Most of the benefits we tend to see would be in the short term, the first year or two after holding the student back,” she said.

Students are repeating some of the same material they’ve already learned, so they do tend to improve in that year they’ve been retained.

But over the long term, those gains tend to fade away “so we don’t see many long-term benefits, usually,” she said. Most of the research has occurred at the elementary level. “Typically, the sentiment is that if you’re going to retain a student, earlier in their educational career is better,” Ball said. Overall, “We don’t see a lot of long-term benefits,” Ball said. “It increases the time kids are in K-12 by a year, and so we tend to see lower high school completion rates among kids who have been retained, and that’s especially true if they are kids who already have other risk factors.” Students with disabilities, Black/Hispanic students as well as English language learners who are retained are more likely to drop out of high school.

Letting students move on to the next grade and then providing them with targeted support and interventions that address their learning needs, would usually be the best way to see improvement and growth, Ball said.

‘Uncharted territory’

As far as COVID-related learning loss, it’s a little different, Ball said. Most of the research done on retention was prior to COVID.

“We are really in uncharted territory,” Ball said.

Typically, when schools decide to retain a student, the student would have some significant academic delays.

In a lot of cases, they have been in school and received grade-level instruction.

“Usually they’ve been there, been through the curriculum, and they are still struggling academically and that is the impetus for discussing retention,” Ball said.

But in the COVID era, more students fell behind because instruction was missed or disrupted, whether because they were out of school or there were problems related to online learning.

“They are missing a large amount of material,” she said.

Research has not found long-term benefits in repeating a grade for kids with chronic absenteeism, she said.

“It would still probably be best to move them forward and provide more intensive supports for them to recover what they’ve missed,” Ball said. “But again, those kiddos are under-represented in the literature because it’s not as common of a reason for kids to be retained, normally.”

Deciding who is retained

The Vigo County School Corp. often uses Light’s Retention Scale to help determine the benefit of retention, Stuckey said. Parents can choose not to go with the teacher recommendation except when it comes to not passing IREAD 3, she said. Light’s Retention Scale is a tool that assists school professionals when making “the sensitive and often difficult decision about promoting or retaining a child,” according to the new edition of the Light’s Retention Scale.

It is based on more than 300 research studies on school retention.

The retention scale has 19 categories to consider, including intellectual skills, number of schools attended, age, English-language status, participation of parents in school-related activities, preschool experience, student’s motivation, attendance, emotional disorders and conduct.
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