Forced Grade Retention and Student Transfers Lead to Lower and More Inequitable Results

Countries in which more students are forced to repeat grades or are expelled tend to have lower overall results and more socially inequitable education systems according to a new analysis of international test results.

The analysis is reported in the July issue of PISA in Focus published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It is based on the results of international reading, maths and science tests taken by 15-year-olds in 2009 as part of the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA).

About 8% of Australian 15-year-olds repeated a grade at least once. The average for all OECD countries was 13 per cent. Over 97% of students in Finland, Iceland, Slovenia, the United Kingdom reported they had never repeated a grade and grade repetition is non-existent in Japan, Korea and Norway. Nearly 15% of US students repeated at least one grade and more than 25% of students repeated at least once in France and Spain and several other countries.

On average 18% of students across OECD countries attend a school in which school principals reported that the school would “very likely” transfer students because of low achievement, behavioural problems or special learning needs. In Australia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, fewer than 3% of students attend schools that would be likely to transfer students for these reasons. However, over 40% of students attend such schools in Austria, Belgium, Greece, and Luxembourg.

The PISA 2009 results show that countries with high rates of grade repetition and student transfer also show lower average student performance. The study found that some 15% of the variation in performance amongst OECD countries can be explained by differences in the rates of grade repetition. Over one-third of the variation was explained by the rate of student transfers.

School systems that hold back or transfer students more frequently also tend to show a stronger relationship between students’ socio-economic background and performance. There is a wider gap in performance between schools in these countries, even after accounting for countries’ national income.

The analysis suggests that forcing students to repeat grades and transferring students tends to be associated with socio-economic segregation in school systems. Students from advantaged backgrounds end up in better-performing schools while students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up in poorer-performing schools. It says that these school systems need to consider how to create appropriate incentives to ensure that some students are not “discarded” by the system.

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