Should Large Numbers of K-12 Students Repeat Grades This Year?

by James C. Sherlock

The question asked in the headline is a class 5 hurricane that has come ashore.

School is in session.

The recommendations for whether and how to execute large-scale retention in grade, whatever they might have been, would have proven very controversial but potentially helpful. Such guidelines are now moot.

Work in schools on the assessments of individual children for retention or advancement likely started in June. But under what assumptions? None of the decision makers have never seen conditions like this.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), prone to maddening and useless pontification rather than dealing with reality, has not acknowledged much less discussed the issue or offered counsel. Unusually silent, the top brass has decided to wait out the storm in their Richmond redoubt.

Virginia schools, parents and children are left to deal with the crisis alone.

VDOE can be counted on to tell them later what they should have done.

The literature and “narrative.”

There have been books and a hundred articles written on the pros and cons of having a kid repeat a grade. Most of the cons are social and motivational. But all of those books talk about individual children.

Until very recently, none of those books or articles have anticipated the mass learning losses imposed on huge numbers of children by adults’ responses to COVID.

Education Week saw it coming. An article, “Tens of Thousands of Students May Have to Repeat a Grade. Should They?,” by Catherine Gewertz on May 24, 2021, addressed it.

“In an April survey of teachers and administrators by the EdWeek Research Center, 42 percent said they expected that more students would repeat a grade than would have done so before the pandemic.”

“Schools nationwide and parents are confronting these decisions. Many parents want the option of holding their kids back. In a March poll by the National Parents Union, 63 percent said they wanted their schools to let them decide whether to move their children to the next grade.”

“Pennsylvania and a handful of other states are considering legislation that would put parents in the driver’s seat on retention decisions for the fall. And advisers who work closely with districts say parent input is more important than ever now, when so many teachers wrestle with how best to help students who show up as little more than blank squares on a Zoom screen.”

Schools might simply be overwhelmed by the logistics of holding hundreds of students back.

But district and school leaders and teachers must still wrestle with how to respond to the issues that triggered the retention possibilities to begin with.

Let’s keep score. Education Week knew of the problem early enough to publish an article about it in May.

As always, the education bureaucracy is concentrating on controlling the “narrative” of learning gaps rather than addressing them.

  • Learning loss is now “unfinished teaching and learning.”
  • Recovery is now “renewal.”
  • Remediation is now “acceleration.”

Got it.

Virginia? The patient died. Let’s move on.

As for Virginia, VDOE’s official position is a non-position. Perhaps:

“Who could imagine such a thing as large scale retention?  Besides, we have ignored it so long that it is too late to implement it. Are we not clever?”

Let us consult Virginia’s governing regulation: 8VAC20-131-30. Student achievement expectations. The opening sentence:

“Each student should learn the relevant grade level/course subject matter before promotion to the next grade.”

By that criterion, the majority of Virginia public school kids should repeat the grade they started in 2020.

But, “never mind.” The list of responses to acknowledged COVID learning gaps published by VDOE does not include repeating a grade.

Why not? They never say.

A VDOE report published in April or May that laid out the pros and cons of and approaches to large-scale retention in grade could have made an important contribution. Didn’t happen.

It is, of course, as they know, too late now.


An autopsy is required.

It will be interesting to discover why retention in grade was not considered in the otherwise predictably useless contributions of VDOE to addressing the problem of mass learning gaps.

I will ask for a statement from VDOE on that issue.

Don’t miss anything important waiting for one.