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Grade Retention: Why not?

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
Each of my articles is available as a PDF at https://tinyurl.com/ybllyw7u


Grade repetition for struggling students? It sounds reasonable – after all, some students are slower than others, and maybe would benefit from more time to master the basics. It has been a popular recourse by many education systems over the years. How does it stack-up in the era of evidence-based decision-making?

The effects of grade retention have been studied for many years. Of itself, it has been shown to be an unsatisfactory response to student failure. In most studies, the impact is negative, while some studies have demonstrated a short-term positive effect – it is usually followed by a levelling out or a decline. It has become clear that simply repeating a year in which the same curriculum is re-presented to the now one year older student offers no achievement benefit, and adds further diminution of a student’s academic self-image and subsequent attainment.

On the other hand, if a revised, intensive and evidence-based curriculum were added during the repeat year, then benefits may possibly outweigh the associated negative side effects. Of course, were such interventions assigned to the student during the year prior to this dramatic step of repetition, a repeat year may well have been unnecessary.


Why consider grade retention? 

“The goal of retaining students is to provide them with an extra year of instruction so they are better prepared before entering the next grade level. Grade retention is considered a last resort option, after other efforts have failed to adequately prepare a student to advance to the next grade level. Retention of a student usually occurs for one of the following reasons: poor performance on standardized achievement tests; emotional immaturity that results in disruptive behavior; developmental immaturity that results in learning difficulties; or poor attendance patterns that preclude the acquisition of essential knowledge and skills (Intercultural Development Research Association, 2018; Bayer, 2017; Peixoto et al., 2016; Child Trends, 2015; Duggan, 2014; Hipkins, 2014; Özek, 2014; Warren et al., 2014; Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012; Cannon & Lipscomb, 2011; Wu et al., 2010). Proponents of grade retention believe that it provides struggling students with extra time to acquire the necessary academic, social, and behavioral skills before starting the next grade level. They argue that it is unreasonable to expect every student to develop at the same pace and that some students need an extra year to catch up with their peers (Mariano et al., 2018; Meador, 2018; Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012; Cannon & Lipscomb, 2011; Hanover Research, 2011a). Critics, on the other hand, contend that retention leads to lower levels of student self-esteem, more negative attitudes toward school, and difficulties adjusting to new peer groups. They note that some children report feeling embarrassed about being separated from their same-age peers and are often stigmatized by teachers and parents as failing (Intercultural Development Research Association, 2018; Mariano et al. 2018; Lynch, 2017; Özek, 2014; Rose & Schimke, 2012; West, 2012; Cannon & Lipscomb, 2011).” (p.1-2)

Blazer, C. (2019). Elementary school grade retention. Information Capsule: Research Services, 1805, 1-13. Miami Dade County Public Schools. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED598545.pdf


Some Research Findings:

“Grade-level retention is a widespread and controversial practice in education. It is estimated that the percentage of elementary students retained each year in the United States is as high as 15% (Hauser, 1999; Shepard & Smith, 1989). Grade-level retention has been linked with increased school dropout rates (Grissom & Shepard, 1989; Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002; Roderick, 1995; Rumberger, 1995); greater academic failure (Meisels & Liaw, 1993; Reynolds, 1992); lower self-concept (Nason, 1991); and fewer employment opportunities, a greater number of arrests, and elevated rates of substance abuse compared to non-retained students (Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Catterall, 1987; Center for the Study of Social Policy, 1994). Despite years of research indicating that grade-level retention is an ineffective intervention for promoting student success (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001; McCoy & Reynolds, 1999; Meisels & Liaw, 1993; Reynolds, 1992; Shepard & Smith, 1989), schools continue to retain students who do not meet academic standards or who display negative classroom behavior (Jimerson, Carlson, Rotert, Egeland, & Sroufe, 1997). The increase in policies and legislation related to accountability and standards, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, may contribute to even higher retention rates (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). For example, high-stakes testing, which was established to monitor achievement standards, has now become an additional criterion used in the retention/promotion decision in some states (Beebe- Frankenberger, Bocian, MacMillan, & Gresham, 2004), including Texas. Relatively few studies have addressed social and behavioral outcomes of retained students, but findings suggest that the effects of grade-level retention are harmful (i.e., Byrnes, 1989; Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001; Shepard & Smith, 1990). Retained students have been found to display poorer social adjustment, more negative attitudes toward school, less frequent attendance, and more problem behaviors (Holmes, 1989). Many retained students also have difficulty with their peers (Byrnes, 1989; Shepard & Smith, 1990). Using retention as an educational intervention for those students who fail to meet academic standards and=or display negative behavior traits implies that students possess not only the requisite ability to be successful in school but also the ability to catch up if they are simply given more time (Balow, 1990). When either of these assumptions cannot be met, instructional interventions, rather than retention, might be preferred (Beebe-Frankenberger et al., 2004) and would possibly be much more effective for struggling learners. Furthermore, because past and present research suggests that neither retention nor social promotion improves educational success (Jimerson, 2001), the current focus of educational research, policy, and practice would be better directed to designing and implementing interventions that are successful in improving outcomes for students at risk for academic failure (Jimerson & Kaufman, 2003; McCoy & Reynolds, 1999). To make a substantial impact on students, these interventions should be systematic and widespread. … The retention rate of 1st-grade students decreased by 47% after RTI was implemented. Data suggest student behavior, oral reading rates, and other individual school variables (as identified by principals) as possible factors contributing to the retention of students.” (p.26-27)

Murray, C.S., Woodruff, A.L., & Vaughn, S. (2010). First-grade student retention within a 3-tier reading framework. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 26(1), 26-50.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10573560903396934


“Test-based grade retention policies have elicited great debate, both in education circles and among the general public. Proponents of retention (e.g., Owen & Ranick, 1977; Winters & Greene, 2006) have argued that retention is necessary to ensure that students who are behind master the skills needed to succeed in the next grade level. Opponents (e.g., Shepard & Smith, 1989), however, have claimed that retention unfairly targets the most vulnerable students, rarely results in academic improvement, and increases the likelihood that students will drop out of school. … However, ending test-based retention should not imply that social promotion is a beneficial alternative. Researchers have argued that simply retaining students without providing different instruction places the blame for low academic achievement solely on the student and offers little hope for improvement. However, simply promoting students to the next grade without additional support is a failed strategy as well (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Owings & Kaplan, 2001). Nevertheless, retention and social promotion are not the only options available. Researchers have suggested numerous alternatives that include using classroom assessments that better inform teaching, and more effectively implementing differentiated and small group instruction (Dennis et al., 2012). Two practical alternatives suggested by researchers (e.g, Darling-Hammond, 1998; Smink, 2001; Smith & Shepard, 1989) and made evident by the studies examined in this review are increasing instructional effectiveness and increasing instructional time. Darling-Hammond (1998) has advocated the need for improving skillful teaching as an alternative to retention, a point emphasized by the Chicago researchers in this review as well. Allensworth and Nagaoka (2010) noted that retention and not staff development was the focus of the Chicago policy. Few structures were established to improve teaching quality and thus retained students often received a second dose of the same instruction when they were retained. Interestingly, although they found that the city’s summer school program (which was heavily scripted) did improve student achievement, they found that students whose teachers intentionally altered the script to meet students’ needs performed higher than those who simply followed the script, leading the researchers to believe that teacher expertise made a difference (Roderick et al., 2005). A second alternative to retention that is underscored by the findings of this review is increasing instructional time. The same-grade comparisons that were used to assess the New York City and Florida policies suggest that students who are given extra time to master material in a specific grade perform higher than those with less time to master the same material. Retention, however, is just one way of adding additional instruction. The studies in Chicago, Florida, and New York City all found that if students are provided additional instruction after school and in summer school, academic achievement increased. Additional instructional time has also been shown to be productive in the forms of universal pre-kindergarten (Lazarus & Ortega, 2007) or multi-grade instruction (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Smith & Shepard, 1989). Smith and Shepard (1989) described various approaches for reconceptualizing school organization to increase instructional time. One consists of having ungraded instruction in the primary grades. Another involves allowing a student who is behind in reading to go to a younger grade for instruction just in that subject. In schools where numerous students move among grades, students experience fewer stigmas related to being older than their peers. Finally, teachers can promote students who are still behind academically but work with their teachers in subsequent years to develop individualized intervention plans for the children.” (p. 3, 23)

Huddleston, A. P . (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18), 1-34. https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n18.2014


“Few educational issues in the United States have had the longevity or contentiousness of grade retention and social promotion. Grade retention refers to the practice of having students repeat a year of schooling in which they did not meet certain educational, or in some cases, social (maturational) standards, whereas social promotion is the practice of advancing students to the next grade with their same-age peers despite not having met these standards. At times, educational practice has been dominated by one or the other. However, even within this broader national context, local communities and states have often developed their own set of norms or policies surrounding grade retention and promotion. In the absence of a national database on grade retention, prevalence data must be estimated from other sources or generalized from specific locations. Estimates of retention in the 1980s and 1990s suggested that 5% to 7% of students were retained each year (Shepard & Smith, 1990). National longitudinal studies conducted during this time provide an indication of the cumulative effect of these annual retention rates. Approximately 20% of students had been retained at least once (Resnick et al., 1997; Rumberger, 1995). Although possible across K–12, retention tends to be more frequently utilized with younger students. In addition, difficulty with reading is a common reason for grade retention (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). During this time period, consensus was emerging among scholars regarding the negative effects of grade retention. Evidence of these negative effects emerged from several arenas, including surveys of children, meta-analyses, and studies of high school dropout. Among the most sobering results regarding the effects of grade retention was an oft-cited survey in which students rated grade retention third on a list of stressful events behind losing a parent and going blind (Yamomoto, 1980, as cited in Shepard & Smith, 1990), results that were echoed in a more recent survey of elementary students (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2005). In addition, meta-analyses of grade retention and social promotion studies indicated almost universal negative effects on retained students' academic and social emotional functioning compared to those who were promoted (Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jimerson, 2001). Finally, the experience of grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout (Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002). One study found that students who were retained were 11 times more likely to drop out (Rumberger, 1995). There are far-reaching negative ramifications of dropping out for individuals and society (Rumberger, 2011). In addition to research concerning the effects of retention or promotion, concerns have also been raised regarding the impact of retention on students of particular racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as the costs of retention. Students living in poverty, boys, and those from Hispanic and Black racial/ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be retained (see Frey, 2005, for a review). Each year that a student is retained, another year is added to that student's education. The average annual per pupil expenditure in the United States in 2008–2009 was $10,694 (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.). With 49.3 million students enrolled in public schools in the United States in 2008–2009 (Aud et al., 2012), estimates of the cost of that extra year of schooling quickly extend to billions of dollars, regardless of whether retention is estimated at 6% or 20%. It is interesting that despite evidence regarding the cost and negative effects of retention, grade retention remained a fairly common educational practice. As Shepard and Smith (1990) noted, “Public belief in the efficacy of retention creates a powerful mandate” (p. 85). Ending social promotion, thereby increasing the frequency of grade retention, became an integral part of the standards and accountability movement that dominated education in the United States over the last 10 to 15 years (Darling-Hammond, 2004). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, with requirements for schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress on standardized achievement tests, contributed to the implementation of promotional gating policies at key grade levels (e.g., third, fifth, and eighth grades) in many districts and states across the United States. In Chicago, for example, approximately 20% of third graders, 12% of sixth graders, and 10% of eighth graders were retained annually in the first years after the implementation of a new promotional gating policy (Roderick & Nagaoka, 2005). … Intransigence of retention practices is remarkable. In light of earlier, albeit flawed, research regarding the negative effects of retention and more recent research that suggests the benefits of retention are, at a minimum, negligible, why is retention still so prevalent? It may be that grade retention practices illustrate the oft-discussed research-to-practice gap (Lilienfeld, Ammirati, & David, 2012) in that scholars are not communicating or translating their results for educators. However, given the number of articles, books, and position statements from major educational organizations over the last 25 to 30 years, this explanation seems unlikely. Educators' beliefs about the effectiveness of retention with their own students are powerful testimonials for continuing the practice. Of course, rhetoric regarding tough standards and accountability is also compelling. Grade retention and social promotion are portrayed as a dichotomy; however, this portrayal is a simplification of the issue. At the center of this debate is the question of what to do with students who are not meeting academic and behavioral standards. In our view, the distinction between placement and intervention is seminal to scientifically based practice and subsequent research. Should grade retention be abandoned? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is vital, in our opinion, is that struggling learners receive carefully monitored instruction and supplemental interventions that address their learning needs.” (p.319-320, 322)

Reschly, A.L., & Christenson, S.L. (2013). Grade retention: Historical perspectives and new research. Journal of School Psychology 51, 319–322.


“Grade retention has long been viewed as a logical, fairly straightforward strategy for students who are achieving below their grade level or experiencing chronic behavior problems. Increasingly, it also is viewed as a preferable alternative to social promotion. Some educators and administrators believe that giving struggling students another year to mature academically, behaviorally, or socially will help them. Other school leaders believe that grade retention is necessary to meet their schools’ annual yearly progress (AYP) and other performance mandates. An increasing number of states—such as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Indiana—have introduced or passed legislation making retention in grade 3 mandatory for students who cannot read at grade level. Research reveals that neither grade retention nor social promotion alone is an effective strategy for improving students’ academic, behavioral, and social and emotional success. Like so much in education, what is most effective is a targeted approach that addresses students’ academic, social, and mental health issues and links specific evidence-based interventions to a student’s individual needs (Algozzine, Ysseldyke, & Elliot, 2002; Shinn & Walker, 2012). Effects of Grade Retention Decades of research indicate that grade retention has numerous deleterious effects on student performance and long-term outcomes, and the empirical evidence fails to reveal any advantages of grade retention.” (p.12)

Jimerson, S.R., & Renshaw, T.L. (2012). Retention and social promotion. Principal Leadership, Sep, 2012, 12-16.


“For both math and reading achievement scores, there is an initial advantage in achievement for students’ repeated first-grade scores compared with their promoted peers’ first-grade scores. However, this effect dissipates over time, such that by Grade 5, the retained students have somewhat lower math and negligibly lower reading scores than their promoted peers at fifth grade. By shifting back students retained in first grade by 1 year, retained students are compared with their promoted peers at the same grade but not at the same age. Retained students are, on average, 1 year older than their propensity-matched peers. The yearly rate of increase in achievement decreases each year (negative acceleration) as the child ages regardless of the child’s retention status. The boost provided by the repeat year slowly dissipates over the elementary school years because of the reduced rate of gain of the retained students relative to the promoted students.” (p. 614-615)

Moser, S.E., & West, S.G. (2012). Trajectories of math and reading achievement in low-achieving children in elementary school: Effects of early and later retention in grade 1. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(3), 603–621.


“As Jimerson (2001) and others have found, when schools and districts try to improve student outcomes by using retention as an intervention for academic failure, academic performance does not improve. Results suggest that the intensity and duration of instruction received during the year in which a student is retained is too low to boost student outcomes into average ranges or accelerate learning. It is the responsibility of school administrations to provide some type of system (e.g., 3-tier) by which to move students into appropriate instructional placement. This will require implementing further systematic change so that primary literacy instruction (general education) is of sufficient intensity and duration to ensure that a large majority of students achieve benchmark goals. Our experiences suggest that for at-risk schools, moving a majority of students into average range will also necessitate the implementation of systematic evidencebased SGI with adequate personnel assigned to provide such instruction. Results from this study indicate that it is unwise to return students to the same insufficient academic environment that failed them in the first place, as happened with the retained kindergarten students. The traditional shortened half-day kindergarten does not provide enough general education or SGI instruction to accelerate student outcomes. Before kindergarten retention is considered, a plan needs to be created to massively strengthen literacy instruction in terms of both intensity and length of instruction. An instructional recommendation with regard to the kindergarten cohort is that 541 hr of quality research-based instruction over the kindergarten and first-grade school years appears to be less than sufficient to bring students at risk for retention into the average outcome range. Over an average of 360 days for two school years (180 days a year), that is 1.5 hr of daily literacy instruction. … Torgeson et al. (2001) suggested that a ‘‘double dose’’ of effective interventions can dramatically reduce the percentage of students failing to meet the benchmark to 1% to 2%. The retained students received just that, because they doubled their time in first grade. Because none of the promoted students in the sample received double doses of intervention, it is impossible to examine whether doubling the intensity and duration of the intervention and time in literacy instruction would have made a difference. We can make a very guarded recommendation about the minimum amount of needed literacy instruction (mix of SGI and general education) from the first-grade cohort results. Given the students’ DIBELS ORF outcomes and the intensity and duration of literacy instruction detailed here, it appears that first-grade students who are at risk for retention need a minimum of 930 hr of quality research-based instruction over their first- and second-grade school years to bring their oral reading fluency scores within the average range. Over an average of 360 days for two school years (180 days a year), that is 2.58 hr of daily literacy instruction (mix of general education and SGI).” (p.22, 23)

Abbott, M., Wills, H. P., Greenwood, C. R., Heitzman-Powell, L., Kamps, D., & Selig, J. (2010). The combined effects of grade retention and targeted small group intervention on students' literacy outcomes. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 26(1), 4-25.


“The finding that retention in the elementary grades increases the risk of dropping out of school suggests that policies and practices that reduce early grade retention would reduce dropout rates. Low academic readiness skills at entry to kindergarten and first grade are the strongest predictors of being retained in the elementary grades (Willson & Hughes, 2009; Davoudzadeh, McTernan, & Grimm, 2015). High quality preschool programs for students at risk for low academic readiness skills due to poverty or limited English proficiency have proven to be effective in increasing these skills (Ladd, Muschkin, & Dodge, 2013). Furthermore, the positive effects of such programs on academic performance spill over to non-program students, reduce the risk of grade retention, and last throughout the elementary school years (Dodge, Bai, Yu, & Muschkin, 2016; Ladd et al., 2013). Thus, increasing the availability of quality preschool education is a proven strategy for reducing grade retention.

Study results suggest that the transition to high school is a point of increased risk for dropping out of school, especially for previously retained youth. These results suggest that policies and practices that increase academic and social supports at this critical juncture could increase school graduation rates. Several comprehensive school reform efforts that focus on increased supports for entering freshmen have shown promise in increasing rates of promotion to grade 10 and graduation (Lee & Burkam, 2003). Key elements include more personalized, smaller learning communities for first time 9th graders, data-driven models to provide timely, enhanced academic supports to students who are failing a course, curricula specifically designed to help students catch up on credits, and professional development for teachers focused on building supporting relationships with students and addressing academic needs.” (p.995)

Hughes, J.N., West, S.G., Kim, H., & Bauer, S.S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(7), 974–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000243


“The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has placed a renewed emphasis on ensuring that every student learns to read. Nevertheless, many students continue to struggle with reading. If not remedied early, their struggle can lead to future reading difficulties (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996), academic failure (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), school disengagement (Schumaker et al., 2006), and dropout (Thompson & Cunningham, 2000). Generally, students who get a poor start in reading rarely catch up (Good, Simmons, & Smith, 1998; Torgeson, 1998). In fact, second grade is often their last chance to learn to read. If by third grade they read below grade level, students have ‘‘little chance of ever catching up’’ (Snow et al., 1998, p. 212). Thus, early intervention is critical. When early intervention is not provided, struggling readers make little, if any, progress, often resulting in grade retention, which exacerbates their problems. Over the long term, grade retention does not typically increase student performance (Fager & Richen, 1999; Jimerson, 2001; Roderick, 1995; Shepard & Smith, 1990; Thompson & Cunningham, 2000). It may even damage students’ chances of academic and social success. Clearly, it is one of the most powerful predictors of school dropout (Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002; Rumberger, 1995; U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Early intervention—intervention that is focused, intensive, and implemented by knowledgeable, skilled practitioners—is an essential key to preventing grade retention and strengthening students’ academic achievement (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Hantman et al., 2002).” (p.1)

Bowman-Perrott, L.J. (2010). Introduction to grade retention among struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 26(1), 1-3.


“Over the last 75 years a pool of research-based knowledge about the effects on students of repeating a year level has been accumulating. It now overwhelmingly indicates that there are neither academic nor social advantages for the majority of students who repeat a year of their schooling. There is probably no other educational issue on which the research evidence is so unequivocal. There is also no other educational issue where there is such a huge gap between what the research says and the practices that schools continue to adopt. Paradoxically this discrepancy between evidence and practice has never been more apparent than in recent times when evidence-based approaches are being strongly promoted by educational systems across Australia The practice of students’ repeating a year level is widely accepted in Australian schools but there are few statistics available on rates of repeating. Kenny (1991) has estimated that approximately 14% -18% of all Australian students repeat a year, especially in the first four years of schooling. Reviews of research and three key statistical meta-analyses (Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jimerson, 2001; Shepard & Smith, 1990) have provided the most important information about the effects of year level repetition.. The conclusions from nearly all of the studies are clear-cut and unanimous: repeating a year does not improve academic performance, social competency or general behaviour for students at either the primary or secondary level. On the contrary it creates low self-esteem and a negative attitude to school and places students at risk of further failure, increased anti-social behaviour and dropping out of school.” (p. 16)

McGrath, H. (2007). To repeat or not to repeat? Curriculum Matters, 6(3), 16-23. https://www.sapotlism.catholic.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/To-Repeat-or-Not-to-Repeat.pdf


“Systematic reviews and meta-analyses examining research over the past century (studies between 1911-1999) conclude that the cumulative evidence does not support the use of grade retention as an intervention for academic achievement or socio-emotional adjustment problems (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001). Recent comparisons of academic achievement (i.e., reading, math, and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (i.e., emotional adjustment, peer competence, problem behaviors, attendance and self-esteem) between retained and matched comparison students, reported in 19 studies published during the 1990s, yielded negative effects of grade retention across all areas of achievement and socio-emotional adjustment (Jimerson, 2001). Research also fails to find significant differences between groups of students retained early (kindergarten through 3rd grade) or later (4th through 8th grades). What is most important is that, across studies, retention at any grade level is associated with later high school dropout, as well as other deleterious long-term effects. Typically, the test scores of students who are retained in the primary grades may increase for a couple of years and then decline below those of their equally low-achieving but socially promoted peers. The temporary benefits of retention are deceptive, as teachers do not usually follow student progress beyond a few years.

Long-term outcomes: Studies examining student adjustment and achievement through high school and beyond report assorted negative outcomes associated with grade retention. When comparing retained students with similarly under-achieving but promoted peers, research indicates that retained students have lower levels of academic adjustment in 11th grade and are more likely to drop out of high school by age 19 (Jimerson, 1999). In fact, retention was found to be one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout, with retained students 2 to 11 times more likely to drop out of high school than promoted students (Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002). Furthermore, the retained students are less likely to receive a high school diploma by age 20, receive poorer educational competence ratings, and are also less likely to be enrolled in post-secondary education of any kind. These youth also receive lower educational and employment status ratings and are paid less per hour at age 20 (Jimerson, 1999).” (p.1, 2)

Anderson, G. E., Whipple, A. D., & Jimerson, S. R. (2002). Grade retention: Achievement and mental health outcomes. National Association of School Psychologists. www.nasponline.org


“During the past decade, amidst the current context emphasizing educational standards and accountability, the practice of grade retention has increased. The call for an end to social promotion has generated a variety of recommendations and legislation regarding promotion policies. This context has served as a catalyst for numerous debates regarding the use of grade retention and social promotion. In an era emphasizing evidence-based interventions, research indicates that neither grade retention nor social promotion is a successful strategy for improving educational success. Moreover, research also reveals prevention and intervention strategies that are likely to promote the social or academic competence of students at risk of poor school performance. It is essential that educational professionals are familiar with the research when implementing interventions to promote student success. School psychologists may use this article as a primer for teachers, administrators, and parents, as it provides a synthesis of research addressing the following important questions: (a) What are the demographic characteristics of retained students? (b) What are the effects of retention on academic and socioemotional outcomes? (c) What long-term outcomes are associated with grade retention? (d) What are students' perspectives regarding grade retention? (e) How does a developmental perspective enhance our understanding? (f) What are some empirically supported effective intervention strategies? Educational professionals are encouraged to incorporate evidence-based programs and policies to facilitate the success of all students.”

Jimerson, S. R., Pletcher, S. M., Graydon, K., Schnurr, B. L., Nickerson, A. B., & Kundert, D. K. (2006). Beyond grade retention and social promotion: Promoting the social and academic competence of students. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 85-97. doi:10.1002/pits.20132


Characteristics of students most likely to be retained:

“Researchers have found that retained students are more likely to be from minority backgrounds and low-income households (Kamenetz, 2017; Schwerdt et al., 2017; Hanover Research, 2016; Knoff, 2016; Porter, 2016; Tolen & Quinlen, 2016; Squires, 2015; Hipkins, 2014; Rose & Schimke, 2012; Cannon & Lipscomb, 2011). The National Center for Education Statistics (2017) reported that in 2015, 1.8% of White students were retained in kindergarten through grade 8, compared to 3.2% of Black students and 2.8% of Hispanic students. According to Child Trends’ (2015) analysis of data from the 2012 National Household Education Survey, 3.3% of children in grades 1-3 who had a household income above the poverty line were retained, compared to 9.7% of children whose household income was at or below the poverty line. Some researchers believe that disadvantaged students are retained more often because they are less likely to have access to schools with adequate resources and qualified teachers (Hanover Research, 2016; Squires, 2015; Hipkins, 2014). Rose and Schimke (2012) stated that some experts “view grade retention as punishing disadvantaged students who . . . may not have received the same quality of instruction as their more advantaged peers.”” (p.2)

Blazer, C. (2019). Elementary school grade retention. Information Capsule: Research Services, 1805, 1-13. Miami Dade County Public Schools. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED598545.pdf


Alternative findings.

There are some studies suggesting that the apparent deleterious effects of grade repetition are artifacts of less well-designed studies that fail to take into account potential baseline differences between those students who were subsequently retained in the primary grades and those who continued to be promoted. Despite that caveat, there are other outcomes, such as early school discontinuation, that continue to be problematic. Even in those studies, most recommendations support significant reduction in the use of grade retention as a means of improving student academic attainment.

“Many empirical studies have tried to deliver more insight into this debate by estimating the impacts of grade repetition on test scores of academic achievement, but also on other outcomes, such as school drop-out, wage and, recently,1 on juvenile crime. The estimation of the causal impact is, however, complicated by selection bias. Retained pupils are more likely to have a lower innate ability and weaker social background than promoted students. If these characteristics are not observed by the researcher, the estimates of the impact of grade retention on educational achievements tend to be biased downwards. The early literature indeed mostly found negative achievement effects of grade retention (Holmes, 1989), although less so in studies that matched treated and control students on measures of ability or academic achievement (Allen et al., 2009). More recent studies, based on Regression Discontinuity Design (RDD),2 Instrumental Variables (IV)3 and factor analytic dynamic models (FADM) (Carneiro et al., 2003; Heckman and Navarro, 2007) 4 also take selection on unobservables into account. These studies, but not all, generally find more positive short-run effects on (test scores of) academic achievement, in particular if retention occurs early in primary school. However, in the long-run, effects on test scores and high school completion remain negative or are, at most, neutral in case of early retention in primary school. … . Lower ability students are clearly more adversely affected than those with higher ability. This is important, because it explains why studies using RDD obtained more favorable results. RDDs (Regression Discontinuity Design) identify the treatment effect of higher ability students who are on the margin of being retained. Finally, our study finds that the alternative remedial measure used in the Flemish schooling system, namely forced downgrading, improves relative to retention only in that it does not lead to as much schooling delay by the end of high school. However, relative to unconditionally passing to the next grade, there is no improvement. Hence, the challenge remains to find more successful remediation strategies.” (p.1, 24)

Cockx, B., Picchio, M., & Baert, S. (2017). Modeling the effects of grade retention in high school. GLO Discussion Paper, No. 148, 1-27. Global Labor Organization (GLO), Maastricht https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/171448/1/GLO-DP-0148.pdf


“Despite our substantially improved control for potential baseline confounders and changes in the educational and policy context from an earlier educational era, we still found that retention has a damaging effect on a child’s likelihood of obtaining a high school diploma in a sample of contemporary students enrolled in school districts representative of the ethnic and income diversity of Texas public schools.

This important finding must be interpreted in light of prior research with this longitudinal sample. Using same grade based comparisons, we previously found that retention in first (or early) grades did not have effects on academic achievement at the end of elementary school (Moser et al., 2012) and retention in the elementary grades did not negatively impact academic achievement or engagement in the middle school grades (Hughes et al., 2013) or students’ motivation to complete high school during their first year in grade 9 (Cham et al., 2015). In other words, there is no evidence that grade retention harms students’ educational achievement or motivation at the point of entry into high school; yet it increases the probability of dropping out of school prior to earning a high school diploma. … The finding that retention in the elementary grades increases the risk of dropping out of school suggests that policies and practices that reduce early grade retention would reduce dropout rates. Low academic readiness skills at entry to kindergarten and first grade are the strongest predictors of being retained in the elementary grades (Willson & Hughes, 2009; Davoudzadeh, McTernan, & Grimm, 2015). High quality preschool programs for students at risk for low academic readiness skills due to poverty or limited English proficiency have proven to be effective in increasing these skills (Ladd, Muschkin, & Dodge, 2013). Furthermore, the positive effects of such programs on academic performance spill over to non-program students, reduce the risk of grade retention, and last throughout the elementary school years (Dodge, Bai, Yu, & Muschkin, 2016; Ladd et al., 2013). Thus, increasing the availability of quality preschool education is a proven strategy for reducing grade retention.” (p.18, 22)

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110, 974–991.


There are some studies suggesting that the apparent deleterious effects of grade repetition are artifacts of less well-designed studies that fail to take into account potential baseline differences between those students who were subsequently retained in the primary grades and those who continued to be promoted. Despite that caveat, there are other outcomes, such as early school discontinuation, that continue to be problematic. Even in those studies, most recommendations support significant reduction in the use of grade retention as a means of improving student academic attainment.

“Many empirical studies have tried to deliver more insight into this debate by estimating the impacts of grade repetition on test scores of academic achievement, but also on other outcomes, such as school drop-out, wage and, recently,1 on juvenile crime. The estimation of the causal impact is, however, complicated by selection bias. Retained pupils are more likely to have a lower innate ability and weaker social background than promoted students. If these characteristics are not observed by the researcher, the estimates of the impact of grade retention on educational achievements tend to be biased downwards. The early literature indeed mostly found negative achievement effects of grade retention (Holmes, 1989), although less so in studies that matched treated and control students on measures of ability or academic achievement (Allen et al., 2009). More recent studies, based on Regression Discontinuity Design (RDD),2 Instrumental Variables (IV)3 and factor analytic dynamic models (FADM) (Carneiro et al., 2003; Heckman and Navarro, 2007) 4 also take selection on unobservables into account. These studies, but not all, generally find more positive short-run effects on (test scores of) academic achievement, in particular if retention occurs early in primary school. However, in the long-run, effects on test scores and high school completion remain negative or are, at most, neutral in case of early retention in primary school. … . Lower ability students are clearly more adversely affected than those with higher ability. This is important, because it explains why studies using RDD obtained more favorable results. RDDs (Regression Discontinuity Design) identify the treatment effect of higher ability students who are on the margin of being retained. Finally, our study finds that the alternative remedial measure used in the Flemish schooling system, namely forced downgrading, improves relative to retention only in that it does not lead to as much schooling delay by the end of high school. However, relative to unconditionally passing to the next grade, there is no improvement. Hence, the challenge remains to find more successful remediation strategies.” (p.1, 24)

Cockx, B., Picchio, M., & Baert, S. (2017). Modeling the effects of grade retention in high school. GLO Discussion Paper, No. 148, 1-27. Global Labor Organization (GLO), Maastricht https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/171448/1/GLO-DP-0148.pdf


“Despite our substantially improved control for potential baseline confounders and changes in the educational and policy context from an earlier educational era, we still found that retention has a damaging effect on a child’s likelihood of obtaining a high school diploma in a sample of contemporary students enrolled in school districts representative of the ethnic and income diversity of Texas public schools.

This important finding must be interpreted in light of prior research with this longitudinal sample. Using same grade based comparisons, we previously found that retention in first (or early) grades did not have effects on academic achievement at the end of elementary school (Moser et al., 2012) and retention in the elementary grades did not negatively impact academic achievement or engagement in the middle school grades (Hughes et al., 2013) or students’ motivation to complete high school during their first year in grade 9 (Cham et al., 2015). In other words, there is no evidence that grade retention harms students’ educational achievement or motivation at the point of entry into high school; yet it increases the probability of dropping out of school prior to earning a high school diploma. … The finding that retention in the elementary grades increases the risk of dropping out of school suggests that policies and practices that reduce early grade retention would reduce dropout rates. Low academic readiness skills at entry to kindergarten and first grade are the strongest predictors of being retained in the elementary grades (Willson & Hughes, 2009; Davoudzadeh, McTernan, & Grimm, 2015). High quality preschool programs for students at risk for low academic readiness skills due to poverty or limited English proficiency have proven to be effective in increasing these skills (Ladd, Muschkin, & Dodge, 2013). Furthermore, the positive effects of such programs on academic performance spill over to non-program students, reduce the risk of grade retention, and last throughout the elementary school years (Dodge, Bai, Yu, & Muschkin, 2016; Ladd et al., 2013). Thus, increasing the availability of quality preschool education is a proven strategy for reducing grade retention.” (p.18, 22)

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110, 974–991.


Alternatives to retention and social promotion.

As with other attempts at quick fixes without addressing quality of teaching as a major influence, retention is best avoided when possible, and more research-based strategies implemented.

“Both grade retention and social promotion fail to improve learning or facilitate positive achievement and adjustment outcomes. Neither repeating a grade nor merely moving on to the next grade provides students with the supports they need to improve academic and social skills. Holding schools accountable for student progress requires effective intervention strategies that provide educational opportunities and assistance to promote the social and cognitive development of students. Recognizing the cumulative developmental effects on student success at school, both early interventions and follow-up strategies are emphasized.

Furthermore, in acknowledging the reciprocal influence of social and cognitive skills on academic success, effective interventions must be implemented to promote both social and cognitive competence of students. NASP encourages school districts to consider a wide array of well-researched, evidence-based, effective, and responsible strategies in lieu of retention or social promotion (see Algozzine, Ysseldyke, and Elliott, 2002 for a discussion of research-based tactics for effective instruction; see Shinn, Walker, and Stoner, 2002 for a more extensive discussion of interventions for academic and behavior problems).

Specifically, NASP recommends that educational professionals:

Encourage parents' involvement in their children's schools and education through frequent contact with teachers, supervision of homework, etc.

Adopt age-appropriate and culturally sensitive instructional strategies that accelerate progress in all classrooms

Emphasize the importance of early developmental programs and preschool programs to enhance language and social skills

Incorporate systematic assessment strategies, including continuous progress monitoring and formative evaluation, to enable ongoing modification of instructional efforts

Provide effective early reading programs

Implement effective school-based mental health programs

Use student support teams to assess and identify specific learning or behavior problems, design interventions to address those problems, and evaluate the efficacy of those interventions

Use effective behavior management and cognitive behavior modification strategies to reduce classroom behavior problems

Provide appropriate education services for children with educational disabilities, including collaboration between regular, remedial, and special education professionals

Offer extended year, extended day , and summer school programs that focus on facilitating the development of academic skills

Implement tutoring and mentoring programs with peer, cross-age, or adult tutors

Incorporate comprehensive school-wide programs to promote the psychosocial and academic skills of all students

Establish full-service schools to provide a community-based vehicle for the organization and delivery of educational, social and health services to meet the diverse needs of at-risk students

For children experiencing academic, emotional, or behavioral difficulties, neither grade retention nor social promotion is an effective remedy. If educational professionals are committed to helping all children achieve academic success and reach their full potential, we must discard ineffective practices, such as grade retention and social promotion, in favor of "promotion plus" specific interventions designed to address the factors that place students at risk for school failure.

NASP encourages school psychologists to actively collaborate with other professionals and parents in their school districts to address the findings of educational research, and develop and implement effective alternatives to retention and social promotion. Incorporating evidence-based interventions and instructional strategies into school policies and practices will enhance academic and social outcomes for all students.”

National Association of School Psychologists. (2003). Position statement on student grade retention and social promotion. Bethesda, MD. https://www.readingrockets.org/article/position-statement-student-grade-retention-and-social-promotion

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