Grade Retention: Getting Left Back in Middle School and High School

Are you and your child worried about him/her failing too many classes and repeating a grade? Depending on which state you live in, failing one or two classes may not be enough to hold someone back. Even if they repeat a grade, there are benefits to getting held back.

How many classes do you have to fail to repeat a grade? To fail a grade a student usually must fail two or more core classes or fail the standardized test in their state. In some cases, the school may make social promotion or summer school available options. Grade retention policies vary at both the state and district levels for students at-risk of being held back.

To avoid this, they will often have to attend summer school to make up the class. Let’s discuss this more and learn about the in’s and out’s of grade retention so you have the information you need to figure out your place in the process.

Grade Retention Defined and Explained

Grade retention is the practice of holding children back after failing too many classes, the use of it has varied over the years.

It’s also known as being held back or getting left-back.

Until the 1970s, most school districts in the United States and Canada used grade retention for kids who failed two or more of their core classes. However, parents and teachers were concerned about the negative impact of holding kids back.

The solution at the time was to promote underperforming students no matter how many classes they failed. Schools only held students back when they were frequently absent. This practice of ‘social promotion’ surged in popularity until the 1980s. However, concerns about the academic performance of students led many school districts to reinstate grade retention policies. Retention rates also increased after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The US Department of Education introduced this bill to improve academic standards across the nation. It focused on four specific areas:

  • Accountability
  • Flexibility
  • Research-based education
  • Parent options

As part of the accountability process, states needed to test all students in reading and math between grades 3 and 8. High school students, however, only completed this test once. School districts now may force students to repeat a grade if they fail one of the current standardized tests. Hence, the stories we hear of anxious parents paying for tutoring in fear of their child not getting a passing grade.

Years later the policies still vary widely between states and individual school districts. Most schools will send students to summer school when they fail multiple classes, but if summer school is not an option or does not make up for the failed classes, the school district may use grade retention or social promotion.

In addition, teachers and parents may intentionally choose to hold a child back if they fail to grasp the reading level for their grade. Since reading aptitude is so fundamental to progressing in school as each year builds upon the previous one, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The choice tends to be better for elementary students than older kids.  

Other students who continually miss many days of class may need to repeat a grade due to the simple fact that they have not had enough time to actually learn the subject matter. Some parents/students don’t know that kids can absolutely be left back for having incurred too many absences. In fact, it is one of the top reasons why they get left back. Schools don’t expect students to know the information that they were not present to receive.

When it becomes clear that their academic aptitude is lagging as a result of significant absences (usually 18 or more in a school year), there is a much higher risk that they will be held back. When they are, the hope is attendance will be taken very seriously as a failure to show up is creating a bad habit that is not realistic to a successful life at school or in the future.

Grade retention occurs most often during elementary school. Districts are reluctant to hold back older students since they are less likely to complete high school with each year they get older. It’s not something any teacher or parent may want to admit, but holding back a 16-year old will probably not help them grasp basic concepts that they should have learned many years ago. If they have the courage and drive to address those issues, it is best done in a private setting at home with parents or a private tutor.

How Many Classes Do You Have to Fail to Repeat a Grade in Middle School?

In middle school, students may need to repeat a grade after failing two or more classes. As with elementary school, students have individual classes but pass or fail the entire school year.

If you do fail one or two classes in middle school, your teachers, parents, and school counselors may meet to discuss the best potential solution. The most common options include:

  • Summer school
  • Social promotion
  • Repeating a grade

Summer school is often the first choice in almost every school district since students simply retake the failed classes during the summer. In some districts, schools even offer after-school classes to make up for the failed courses.

Schools may also use social promotion or grade retention when summer school and after-school options do not work. The choice between these two options still depends on the policies of the school district and the state. Parents or students who are concerned about the policies in their school should refer to their student handbook or call the office of their local school district.

How Many Classes Do You Need to Fail to Repeat a Grade in High School?

Well, high schools operate on a slightly different model and so they typically only hold a student back if they fail to earn enough credits to graduate on time. Therefore, failing one or two classes rarely results in grade retention as students can retake the failed classes during summer school or the following semester.

For an example of how the credit system works, think of it this way. Say that your school requires you earn 42 credits over four years. After passing all your classes during your freshman year, you have now earned 12 credits (congrats!)

Now let’s say during your sophomore year, you fail seven classes and only earn five credits for a total of 17 credits. To graduate on time, you would need to earn 25 more credits over the next two years. However, two years only provide you with the chance to earn 24 credits. In this situation, you would need to take summer school or repeat a grade to make up for that 1 missing credit. So the lesson is if you need to make up more than a few credits, grade retention is more of a possibility.

Keep in mind that these policies and credit systems differ a bit in each state and district. Instead of one credit per semester, some schools give one credit per year. Failing to earn two or three of these credits may also be enough to hold the student back.

Additionally, most states require high schools to use a credit system with students earning one credit for each class passed. In some cases, students needed to repeat a grade if they failed to earn a specific number of credits for the year.

The credit system also typically requires a specific number of credits for each subject. For example, in Texas and many other states, students must complete the following:

  • 8 English credits
  • 6 math credits
  • 8 science credits
  • 8 social studies credits
  • 2 physical education credits
  • 2 fine arts credits

Students earn one credit for each class per semester. The school may also have a total credit requirement, combining these credits with a set number of electives.

With one credit per semester, students may earn up to 12 credits per year for a total of 48 credits by the end of senior year. This gives them a 6 credit buffer over four years. If they make more than 6 mistakes without making them up in summer school, then grade retention will be a more likely solution.

How Many Times Can You Get Held Back in Middle or High School?

School districts may only hold students back twice in most states before the student needs to seek alternative options for completing a high school diploma or GED. Most students are set to graduate during the year that they turn 18, depending on when they started preschool or kindergarten. However, the US public school system will only provide education through the age of 20, which means repeating a grade more than 2 times would put him or her over the threshold.

To avoid this problem, many school districts use social promotion after a child has already repeated a grade once, especially if the failed classes are due to learning difficulties. If the child fails due to excessive absences or school suspensions, grade retention still remains a likely option.

After repeating a grade twice, most students will need to enroll at an alternative education high school or earn a GED, if they still cannot pass their courses.

How to Deal with Repeating a Grade in Middle or High School

Having to repeat a grade can be devastating. Most kids want to remain in the same grade as their friends. The following tips may help you deal with this transition:

  • Try to not let negative comments from other students bother you
  • Stay in touch with your old friends and try to make new friends in your grade
  • Understand that your parents and/or school decided that this was in your best interest

One of the keys to success in life is the ability to turn challenges into opportunities. The bottom line is that you need to remain positive. Flip the script and make something out of the situation. If you stay focused, you are likely to excel and may become one of the top students in your class. This could be the time you have needed to catch up and get back on track. To get you started, I wrote a helpful article on finding and understanding academic weaknesses.

Advantages of Repeating a Grade

I know it may not seem like it, but repeating a grade could offer advantages, depending on the situation. Every student has different circumstances and factors that influence his or her education and so it could be that repeating a grade is not in the best interest of the child. Let’s review below.

The following types of students tend to benefit most from repeating a grade:

  • Children who are younger than their peers (they just made the cut-off date)
  • Kids who are developmentally immature
  • Children who are too far behind to catch up to their peers the following year
  • Children who have missed excessive school days due to illness or trauma

Repeating a grade gives students a chance to play catch up. If they are behind emotionally, physically, or intellectually, staying back a year places them around peers that are more like them in these regards.

Students who are already younger than their peers may benefit from repeating a grade as it puts them in classes with students their own age. Even small age gaps during youth can have substantial implications for intellectual, social and emotional development. Remember how much a toddler learns from 1 to 1.5 years old? Think of it in those terms. Each small period of time is giving them the ability to develop a new skill and therefore be much further ahead or behind another kid.

All in all, if a student is going to be held back it’s better that it happens in elementary school and here’s why. Studies show that students have a higher risk of dropping out after repeating a grade in middle school or high school. This is something that parents and teachers will need to work on. A strong support system at home and a good teacher can really make a difference here.

Disadvantages of Repeating a Grade

While repeating a grade can provide advantages, it also brings potential drawbacks:

  • Older children may not enjoy being even older than their peers
  • Children who are physically larger than their peers may feel awkward around smaller children
  • Children who are often absent are more likely to drop out after repeating a grade
  • Children who are truly against repeating a grade are likely to find ways to fail

The pros and cons of grade retention ensure this will remain a hotly debated topic. The choice between holding a student back and promoting them to the next grade comes down to the decision of the school district, teachers, parents, and student.

How to Avoid Repeating a Grade

I’ve provided all the pros and cons, data and statistics, examples and stories, but now what?

The real way for your child to avoid repeating a grade is to address any issues, delays or concerns while the child is still young and moldable. If they are struggling to read and no one addresses it in the early stages, then, unfortunately, it’s going to be harder to address that problem later. The child is going to be far less likely to enjoy school and may be awarded failing grades on their way to being left behind.

This is a very fixable problem for many kids and the solution will 9 out of 10 times be on the parent to provide more support at home and push for more support at school to help get their kid back on track.

However, if your child is already older and facing these issue then at a bare minimum you are going to need to support them in the home and make sure they get more help in schools to increase the likelihood they succeed.

In school, you will need to work closely with their teachers to get them back on track in class. Most students are given many opportunities to avoid repeating a grade. Teachers are usually eager to help students who want to help themselves. If the student shows they are ready to be accountable for their behavior and performance by talking to their teacher and asking for help the teacher is very likely to provide the support the student needs. If they are ready to start setting academic goals and work hard to achieve them, I wrote a useful article to get them started. 

Additionally, the teacher is supposed to contact the student’s parent to discuss the student’s performance if a student has performed poorly in class during the school year. This communication is usually intended to ensure the parent is well aware of what the child needs to do to improve their grade. It also prevents the parent and child from claiming to be surprised by a poor grade at the end of the year.

Even if this conversation never happens, grades will typically be sent home 8 times during the school year (4 progress reports and 4 report cards). That is 8 opportunities for the parent to have a conversation with the child about their grades and to contact the teacher to help make sure additional support is provided to their child.

It’s also 8 opportunities for the child to look at their report card and ask if poor performance is what they want for themselves. If it’s not, they should walk into school the next day and humbly ask their teacher for help.

Once communication is established with the teacher through any of these means, the parents and/or student can work with the teacher to create a remediation plan that will help the student catch up on their work, learn the necessary content to make sure they stay on grade level and get their grades up so they can move on to the next grade with their friends.

This plan should include steps that the student will follow to support them in following through on their commitment to success. Their parent should follow up with them a few times a week to make sure they are working through those steps effectively and meeting their goals.

In the home, the parent should tutor their child themselves or get a tutor for them. Their efforts should be based on a strategic plan that addresses the deeper causes of the child’s academic struggles. Parents who have questions about how to develop this plan should consult with their school’s administration or support coaches for more information.  

For example, maybe the child is doing poorly in English and Social Studies because they are reading 2 or 3 grade levels below where they are supposed to be. It’s on the parent and student to make sure they get back up to where they are supposed to be. The school does have not the time to teach the current content and remediate every learning gap for every student. It’s a lot for a parent to do, but if it’s what the child needs then the parent should help the child succeed.

You will need to go back and figure out where they went off track, then ensure your child receives the support they need to get back on track. Although their teachers can’t do all this work for you while still doing their jobs effectively, they can be great resources. They should be able to help you pinpoint the topics you need to revisit and spend more time on.

As you work through the process, you will probably find that the issues you are working through are rooted in the child needing to demonstrate a more disciplined academic work ethic (unless a learning disability is a factor).

After they show their willingness to be committed, then they will have to face the negative emotions and thoughts that come along with admitting how far behind they really are and all the work they will need to do to catch up. They will need their parents to help them be strong and push through this step. That can be hard to do. I wrote an article covering the techniques that we should all remember to use as thoughtful parents. Parenting is challenging. Sometimes a good reminder can help us get back on track.

By working consistently on their challenges over time they will find their own successes and hopefully, build a new appreciation for their academic interests and abilities. In the process let’s hope they also build a renewed belief in their own intellectual capabilities.  

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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