Who is most likely to be left back at school?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

It was the kind of thing you whispered about with your classmates, while for the kid himself – and it usually was a “he” – it was an embarrassment that some tried, unsuccessfully, to dress up as a badge of honour. Being left back at school was no joke; and the practice continues to take a toll on millions of students every year – even though it does little to benefit the individual student who is required to repeat a grade.

The latest PISA in Focus highlights how successive rounds of PISA have found that grade repetition shows no clear benefit, either for individual students or for school systems as a whole. It is also an expensive way of handling underachievement, since the students who are left back are more likely to drop out of school entirely, or stay longer in the school system and so spend less time in the labour force.

Some countries have begun to realise that grade repetition is neither cheap nor particularly effective in assisting struggling students. They are rejecting the practice in favour of identifying and providing support earlier to these students. Among the 13 countries and economies that had grade repetition rates of more than 20% in 2003, for example, these rates dropped by an average of 3.5 percentage points by 2012. Rates fell particularly sharply in France, Luxembourg, Macao-China, Mexico and Tunisia.

Results from PISA 2012 suggest another good reason to end the practice of grade repetition: because disadvantaged students are more likely than advantaged students to repeat a grade, grade repetition tends to reinforce inequities in the school system. Across OECD countries, one in five socio-economically disadvantaged students reported that they had repeated a grade at least once since they entered primary school, while fewer than one in ten advantaged students reported so. In Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia and Uruguay, more than one in two disadvantaged students reported that they had repeated a grade at least once since they entered primary school.

More troubling is that even among students with similar performance in mathematics, reading and science, the likelihood of having repeated a grade is often linked to socio-economic background. In 33 of the 61 countries and economies analysed, the odds of repeating grades are significantly higher among disadvantaged students than among advantaged students, after accounting for differences in mathematics, reading and science performance across students. On average across OECD countries, disadvantaged students are 1.5 times more likely to repeat grades than advantaged students who perform at the same level.

What this shows is that poor academic performance is not the only reason students are left back; other factors related to socio-economic disadvantage come into play as well. For example, grade repetition may be used not to help students who are lagging behind, but as a form of punishment to sanction misbehaviour. PISA data show that disadvantaged students are significantly more likely than their advantaged peers to arrive late for school or to skip classes. But it is unclear – at best – how repeating a grade improves behaviour in class and engagement at school. What is clear is that students who arrive late for school or skip classes miss out on learning opportunities, which, in turn, reinforces inequities related to socio-economic background.

Being required to repeat a grade adds shame and embarrassment to students who may already be discouraged and disaffected at school – and to no apparent benefit. Instead of making struggling students the focus of class gossip, isn’t it better to make them the focus of the support, extra help and encouragement they need – as soon as they need it?


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