In Partnership with The 74

What if my child isn’t ready for the next grade but her school plans to move her up anyway? Here’s what parents can — and can’t — do

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | May 29, 2018



With the end of the school year nearing, students are celebrating as they move up to the next grade level.

But not all parents are sure their kids are ready.

Fewer than 4 in 10 LA Unified students are reading at grade level, even fewer are at grade level in math. But parents can’t hold their children back if the school disagrees. And district policy is to almost always move elementary and middle school kids to the next grade regardless of performance. Last year, only 1,300 of 354,000 students in grades TK- 8 were retained; that’s less than 0.4 percent, a drop from 0.55 two years ago.

So what can parents do if they feel their child isn’t ready for the next grade? Who gets the final say?

In California, it’s the schools.

California’s Pupil Promotion & Retention policy in the state education code says a student can be promoted if the teacher decides retention isn’t appropriate even if the student is failing.

According to this regulation, “a school can retain or promote a student without parent or guardian approval.” It also says the district’s school board must provide an appeal process for parents who disagree with the school’s promotion or retention decision for their student.

All school districts must have a policy around promoting students to the next grade, but the criteria used vary from district to district. The policies are for elementary and middle school students. At the high school level, students must earn credits in order to be eligible to move to the next grade.

LA Unified’s expectation for all students is that they will be prepared to move to the next grade level, avoiding negative effects of retention.

According to the 2017 state test scores — known as CAASPP or Smarter Balanced tests — in LA Unified, 39.5 percent of students tested proficient in English language arts and 29.8 did in math, below the state average of 48.56 percent in English and 37.56 percent in math. (The improvements were so negligible last year that they were reported for the first time in decimal points.)

We asked LA Unified’s senior executive director of P-12 education for the Division of Instruction, Derrick Chau, about retention. His answers are lightly edited for length and clarity.

When does the option of retention need to start being considered?

The expectation in the district is that all students are prepared to move to the next grade level. We generally see that the policy of social promotion or the idea of retaining students happens the most in the elementary grades, particularly in kindergarten. Parents should be notified of this early on by teachers when they talk about the academic progress of their child. There’s an expectation for schools to communicate with parents early on.

At the school level, who decides if a student is at risk of being held back?

Every school site in LA Unified has a Students Support and Progress Team (SSPT) that includes the student’s teacher. They can sit down with parents and talk about how the student is performing and what support they think the student needs or doesn’t need. Maybe it’s that the parents just need assurance, the evidence that their child is on track and there’s no need to worry.

SSPT should have regular meetings with teachers and parents once they have proactively identified students that need additional support by looking at data after each report period,  ensuring students are getting the support that they need.

How early in the school year can parents address their concerns about their child’s performance?

Usually during the reporting periods for elementary, which are once every 15 weeks or so, and for secondary it is once every five weeks. Those are good times for parents to get that formal feedback and express their concerns, talk to a teacher, counselor, or school administrator, and ask for the student support team to come together and discuss the progress of the child.

Who makes the first recommendation of retention — the teacher, parents, the school counselor?

All input is welcome and call for that student support team to come together and put into effect a plan as early as possible so that child can receive targeted interventions and support that they may need to get back on track. The idea of retention, not allowing the student to go into the next grade level, is not what anybody really would want.

Can retention be good in some cases?

There’s a lot of research that shows that there are a lot of detrimental effects of retaining a student from one grade level to the next. The state department website has references to some of that research. So definitely it’s something we want to avoid. Having a student repeat the same content all over again is not an effective way, because he may actually understand most of it but may just have some (learning) gaps. They just may need some interventions.

What are you doing to provide that intervention, and what does it look like?

Five or six years ago, we started having some committees start engaging in determining strategies to better support students and filling those gaps and developing targeted interventions. For some students, that could mean offering some summer school, additional tutoring, or a different instructional program.

What if I still believe it would be better for my child to be retained, can I request that? As a parent, do I have the authority to make it happen?

It would be an agreement between the school, the district, and the parent. There is a document at the kindergarten level which parents can use; the school and district must agree as well. It’s a mutual decision. But in the other grades, parents have the right to request retention, but if the school or the district don’t agree to it, that wouldn’t happen. Parents cannot just request retention for their kids on their own.

Here’s what Chau recommended for parents:

    • It’s critical to communicate with the teacher throughout the school year.
    • Look at evidence of your student’s progress along with the teacher.
    • Teachers should make recommendations for after school-tutoring or make other resources available.
    • Meet with the Students Support and Progress Team (SSPT), so they can provide counseling and identify targeted intervention that the student may need.
    • Continue meeting with the SSPT team throughout the school year and discuss other issues with the child, who may be facing language issues or learning disabilities.
    • Avoid retention; instead, consider interventions.

This LA Unified chart shows the number of students retained — or held back a grade — in the last three years.

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