TRUE OR FALSE. Is grade repetition really effective in helping students in difficulty?

If Gabriel Attal announced on Tuesday that he wanted to facilitate his recourse to fight against academic failure, studies show that repeating a year increases the risk of dropping out, except when it takes place in pivotal orientation classes.


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In a college in Rieumes (Haute-Garonne), May 4, 2021. (ADRIEN NOWAK / HANS LUCAS / AFP)

From a short sentence pronounced at the Congress of Mayors of France to a formal announcement. On the occasion of the presentation of his plan for a “shock of knowledge”, Tuesday December 5, Gabriel Attal confirmed the bringing back into fashion of repeating a year, a practice which had almost disappeared in schools. The Minister of Education has promised that he will publish, in the first quarter of 2024, a decree allowing the teaching team, and no longer families, to have the last word in deciding whether to repeat a student.

“I want to fight against forced failure” of students pushed to access the next class, justified Gabriel Attal. Over the past ten years, the use of grade repetition has been falling sharply in France, whether at the first or second level. According to figures from the Department of Evaluation, Foresight and Performance (Depp), the repeat rate in 5th grade reached 0.5% in 2022, compared to 5% in 2000.

The Pisa 2022 survey (PDF document) published Tuesday by the OECD also reveals that in 2003, almost four out of ten 15-year-old students had repeated a year at least once in France”a ratio which falls to “only one in ten” Today. Why then go back? According to the minister, facilitate access to grade repetition “is based on scientific work which indicates (…) that a form of repetition can promote academic success”. For “remain demanding at all levels”, “science and common sense” were to be used “like a compass”, he asserts again. However, the majority of scientific research shows that repeating a grade is often ineffective and stigmatizing.

Risk of dropping out of school

Another OECD survey (PDF document)unveiled in 2014, advances as well as in practice, repetition does not bring “clear proof of its benefits, whether for repeating students or for the education system as a whole.” It can even constitute “an expensive solution” for the student, we can read in the study. “LRepeaters are more exposed to the risk of dropping out of school or stay longer in the school system, which delays their entry into working life., notes the OECD. A student who repeats a year is required to review exactly the same concepts as the previous year. Once this repetition has passed, the rest can be very laborious”, remarks Pierre Merle, sociologist specializing in education issues.

“The student finds himself confronted with difficulties to which he was no longer accustomed during the year in which he was repeated a program.”

Pierre Merle, sociologist

at franceinfo

According to the researcher, the repeater can also “feeling stigmatized by others, and this belittling has repercussions on one’s ability to succeed”. A study by the National Center for the Study of School Systems (Cnesco) published in 2015 confirms that grade repetition has no effect on long-term academic performance. (…) [Il] has, on the other hand, always a negative effect on educational trajectories and remains the best determinant of dropout.”

Conversely, the decline in repetition in France has made it possible to achieve better fluidity of course, without affecting the success of the students who have generally progressed”noted Depp in an information note published in 2014. Example with exams: between 2006 and 2013, “the proportion of students ‘on time’ obtaining the baccalaureate ‘on time’ has increased significantly”, going from 67% to 77.4%. Generally speaking, countries at the top of the Pisa ranking, such as Estonia and Japan, are characterized by a low repetition rate.

Studies that go against this scientific consensus are rare, but they exist. In 2018, the Belgian sociologist Hugues Draelants published an article in which he asserted that the conclusions “which lead to the educational denunciation of repetition are based on methodologically fragile studies and meta-analyses which tend to obscure” debate. For Pierre Merle, on the contrary, “L“Research is numerous and consistent, and has justified in almost all countries of the European Union a very significant reduction in grade repetition, or even its ban.”

On the specialized site Educational Café, Hugues Draelants nevertheless assures that he does not want rehabilitate grade repetition, but rather demonize it”. Repetition is only a symptom of a deeper problem: the difficulties of certain children (…) when it comes to school learning.” points out the researcher.

Inequalities and alternatives

In France, the current method is based on rigorous work on the effectiveness of repetition. The 2013 orientation law specifies that it must “to be an exception“, and a decree of November 2014 adds that it must be prohibited in kindergarten and used with caution in primary and middle school. Repeating a year can only take place for “to compensate for a significant period of disruption in school learning”as a difficult event in personal life.

At certain pivotal levels, its recourse can be considered. “In third and second grade, we prevent the student from being directed towards a course they do not want. Repeating a year can then be beneficial, because the student is motivated to obtain the choice of their orientation”, justifies Pierre Merle. In 2018, a decree published at the request of former minister Jean-Michel Blanquer slightly relaxed the conditions for repeating a year, without triggering a significant increase in the use of it.

Moreover, repeating a year is not only the consequence of a “low” academic level of the student. It often reveals social differences. According to the OECD, “one student from a disadvantaged socio-economic background in five (20%) indicates having already repeated a grade at least once since the start of primary school, compared to 7% of students from a privileged background”. Repetition is frequently “the only solution” which is offered to him, since he does not benefit support opportunities as early and effective as advantaged students”. When a repeat is proposed, Pierre Merle adds that parents from a disadvantaged background accept “more the teachers’ verdict” than those of privileged students.

The latest Pisa report finally highlights that grade repetition is not widespread in countries where students declare that their math teachers [l’enquête de 2022 étant principalement axée sur cette discipline] support them and have good relationships with them”. However, France is one of the countries “where students report receiving the least support from their teachers”.

The countries which have chosen to limit repetition have moved towards alternatives, such as catch-up at the end of the year, tutoring or “looping”, notes Cnesco. This last practice, massively developed in Finland, consists, for the same class, of keeping the same teacher for several years, allowing students to be followed without interruption. The most efficient countries don’t even know what grade repetition is (…) it’s proof of our lack of educational imagination.”summarizes sociologist Marie Duru-Bellat.

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