Texas parents can decide to hold their children back a grade next year. Should they?

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Parents in Texas now have the option to request that their child repeat a grade under new guidance from the Texas Education Agency following more than a year of learning disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency says the option to repeat a grade, as required by recently passed Senate Bill 1697, should be considered by parents of pre-K or kindergarten students who missed school for a substantial amount of time last year.

Studies have linked attendance of high quality early education to increased outcomes later in a students career, including high school graduation. Important social and learning skills are also developed during that time period, as noted by the TEA in its guidance to parents.

Parents who want their child to repeat a grade, or start over in kindergarten, should provide a request to their child’s principal in writing before the first day of school, which is less than three weeks away in Fort Worth. While parents have the final say in whether their child remains in the same grade for an additional year, or move on with extra support, school officials have the option to form a committee to discuss options with the parent.

The committee, which is made up of the school principal, teachers and the child’s parents, will discuss the needs and placement of the student, before allowing the parent to make the final decision on grade retention. However, the district is required to respect the parents’ final wishes after the meeting, according to the new legislation.

Parents of students in fourth grade and above will only be able to request retention this next school year. Students in pre-K to third grade will continue to have this option into the future under the new legislation.

For those from first to eighth grade, repeating is recommended for students who struggled with virtual learning, or did not engage for much of the year. But parents should first look into what type of extra support their child will receive.

According to the agency’s own guidance, just repeating the school year without a plan to better cover material doesn’t necessarily improve results.

Studies show retention does not work

Over a decades-worth of studies looking at the impact of retention on student success found that early retention has caused disadvantages for children including lower achievement, aggression, high school drop-out and dramatically reduced college attendance.

“Essentially, it doesn’t work, that’s the simple version,” said David Steiner, the executive director of the John Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. “The more complicated version is that, in rare circumstances in first and second grade, it can do some good -- only if it is supported by high dosage interventions -- not just repeating the grade, but with tutoring and effective response to intervention and differentiated instruction.”

That type of intervention is rare, and hard to come by, Steiner said, and doesn’t account for the psychological toll of being held back a grade.

“Students immediately feel that they’re being pushed backwards and that’s depressing to them,” he said. “They’re with younger children, which socially depresses them further -- and often, they never catch up.”

That may be different for students that never started pre-k in the first place, or signed up but never participated.

The Fort Worth School District saw a drop in pre-K enrollment of over 1,400 students last year compared to the year before, and is looking to enroll those students for the next school year.

“If you haven’t done your very first year of schooling, then there may well be an argument for just starting,” Steiner said. “Because in that sense, you’re not repeating anything. And so you don’t have the same stigma, and perhaps the other children in the class don’t know that you’re a year older.”

But if a child has already started their educational journey, acceleration is still a valid tool at the earliest grades.

“Instead of trying to teach them everything they missed, focus on the crucial skills that they need to access grade level material,” Steiner said. “It doesn’t try to go backwards and fill in all the holes.”

Acceleration required under new law

That approach is already being required in third and eighth grade under another new guideline following the passage of House Bill 4545, which ended the use of STAAR testing as a punitive measure, and replaced it with accelerated learning and additional support.

“There is now no aspect of state policy that requires students to pass the STAAR test,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said during a media call about the new guidelines.

“In years past students might have to retake the STAAR test if they didn’t perform well,” he said. “STAAR is about identifying student need and creating targeted supports from us as adults. So students who do not meet grade level are now entitled to receive extra services from their districts.”

Those supports could include up to three sessions of tutoring embedded in the school day or after school, support on district-provided devices, or other independent tutoring, Morath said.

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