National Edition

Middle school on repeat: Why some parents want their children to take 8th grade twice

Published: Tuesday, June 10 2014 11:55 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 11 2014 10:32 a.m. MDT

Eighth-grade Boyle County Middle School Science classes watches a plastic bottle launch, Monday, June 2, 2014., outside near Boyle County Middle School in Danville, Ky. The students were learning about Newton's Second Law of Motion. The rockets were made from plastic bottles and cardboard.

Clay Jackson, Associated Press

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It’s not unusual for parents to wait an extra year to send a child to kindergarten, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to have children repeat the eighth grade.

“Sports coaches have debated and defended their stances on voluntary repetition of eighth grade for sports-related reasons for years — most believe it offers a real athletic advantage,” Jessica Lahey reported in the Atlantic. “But the decision to repeat eighth grade is increasingly becoming an academic choice for some students.”

When sports are not involved, students who repeat a year traditionally did so under No Child Left Behind mandates because a grade-level was not successfully completed. But with a more competitive job market creating a more competitive college admissions process, parents see benefit in voluntarily holding their kids back an extra year in middle school.

“The tantalizing lure of ‘stronger, larger, faster, and smarter’ has not been lost on academically minded parents,” Lahey wrote, “and as the pace of American education gets more intense, some have opted to give their kids an extra year between middle and high school.

The Wall Street Journal informally polled 313 parents and reported that 74 percent said they would consider holding their child back a grade “even if school officials said the student could be promoted.

“Parents used to push kids ahead, and have them do things as young as possible," Suzy Post, director of admission at Rumson Country Day School, Rumson, New Jersey, told the WSJ. “But I have seen a change in parents' attitude toward delaying entry or repeating a grade.”

Many parents choose to hold their middle-schoolers back due to the pressure from universities admissions that students distinguish themselves academically earlier.

The WSJ reported, “The recent push for increased academic rigor also means kids need more well-developed executive functioning skills,” or the ability to plan, organize and self-regulate.

Those skills originate in the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last areas to develop. According to UNESCO’s grade-repetition research, many students struggle in transitional grades (sixth, eighth grades and college freshman year) due to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

Ellen Galinsky, author of "Mind in the Making," noted, “Executive-function skills predict children’s success in life and school” because “they enable us to control ourselves, to reflect deeply, and to consider things from multiple points of view.”

A child who repeats a transitional grade before college, especially eighth grade, has a higher chance of success due mainly to the simple reality of a more advanced brain function.

When Lahey asked a former student and his parents about the decision to voluntarily repeat the eighth grade, she reported, “They were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the experience.”

Sam Strohbehn, Lahey’s student, said, “What made me change my mind was realizing that I could take a year and focus less on grades and more on learning new things. There was something appealing about learning just to learn rather than learning to get a grade.”

The effects of voluntary repetition aren’t all positive. As one critic wrote, “[Everyone] paying for successful students to repeat a grade in a public school is bad practice and an abuse of public funds.”

UNESCO agreed in its report, stating, “Grade repetition represents inefficiency and wastage of resources for society, but its voluntary forms may be beneficial to students in certain circumstances.”

Lahey, who worked as an educator for years, said, “I wonder whether the solution to slow development lies in granting an extra year to a precious few or in redeveloping curricula to focus more on executive-function skills. Voluntary grade repetition is an attractive and useful Band-Aid for the few who can afford it, but for the rest of the American student population, it only draws attention to the gaping holes in the education we provide to the many.”

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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