But does this policy achieve its ultimate aim: to offer better – and more equitable – opportunities for education?
Not according to the most recent PISA results. As the latest issue of PISA in Focus notes, countries where students repeat grades more frequently tend to have worse performance results overall, and students’ socio-economic backgrounds have a greater impact on their results. The same is true in countries where weak or disruptive students are transferred to other schools.
More than a quarter of 15-year-olds in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain reported that they had repeated a grade at some point during their school careers. But more than 97% of students in Finland reported that they had never repeated a grade, and in Japan and Korea, grade repetition is virtually non-existent – and these three countries are among the highest performers in the PISA tests.
Not only do PISA results show that countries with high rates of grade repetition are also those that show poorer student performance, but the policy of having students repeat grades can be costly for countries. For example, in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, the cost of using grade repetition for one age group is equivalent to 10% or more of the annual national expenditure on primary- and secondary-school education; and the social cost per student can be as high as USD 11 000 or more. Imagine the teaching staff and educational resources that could be bought with that amount of money and used to help students individually and prevent them from falling behind...
School systems that transfer students more frequently because of low academic achievement, behavioural problems or special learning needs also tend to show a stronger relationship between students’ socio-economic background and their performance in school, and a wider gap in performance among schools. This suggests that transferring students tends to be associated with socio-economic segregation in school systems, where students from advantaged backgrounds end up in better-performing schools while students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up in poorer-performing schools.
Which brings us back to the rationale that should underlie every education policy: Does it ensure that students are offered the best possible and most equitable opportunities for education? The results from PISA speak for themselves.