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Student Grade Retention
Tracy VanAuken Plattsburgh State Spring 1999

The practice of student grade retention, or repeating a grade, goes through waves of popularity. Today with increased public and political pressure to improve the quality of the education in the United States, retention has become a common practice. Despite this fact there are strong proponents against retention. This debate has been going on since the turn of the 20th century, why hasn't it been solved?

To retain or not to retain?

Let's start with the arguments for retention. They make intuitive sense. If a child is failing, an extra year of instruction should result in mastery. It follows that once these students begin to achieve, their self-esteem will be enhanced. And what about those immature kids, another year will give them a "year to grow." Of course teachers will be happy. They'll have homogenous classrooms making it easier for them to teach. Social promotion of students who are failing results in students with poor academic skills. Retention seems like the correct answer, yet research indicates otherwise.

Holmes and Matthews (1984) conducted a meta-analysis to determine the effectiveness of grade-level retention on elementary and/or junior high students. A meta-analysis is a statistical technique that can integrate the results of several studies to examine the effects of a variable such as retention. Results of this study found a significant grand mean effect size of -.37. In other words the retained students scored .37 standard deviations lower on the various outcome measures of the 44 studies. More specifically, results indicated significant differences between retained and promoted students on academic achievement, personal adjustment, self-concept, and attitude toward school. Promoted students had more preferred outcomes on all of these measures. In sum, the effects of retention appear to be the opposite of the goals of retention.

Foster (1993) reviewed the research on grade retention. She indicated that the annual retention rate in the U.S. was 7 to 9 percent. At this rate a high school graduating class will be made up of 50% of students who had been previously retained. The rate may not actually be that high because by senior year a number of students will have already dropped out. Foster cited Grissomand and Shepard (1989) reporting that being retained one year almost doubled a student's likelihood of dropping out.

Foster (1993) also stated that concern was raised as early as 1909 that retention had a negative impact on self-concept. Bracey (1986, in Foster, 1993) found that children ranked failing a grade only slightly less stressful than going blind or losing a parent to death.

An argument has been made that retention is more appropriate as a preventative rather than a remedial intervention. This argument would suggest that children retained in kindergarten or first grade have more favorable outcomes than a matched promoted group. Research has shown that there are no differences in achievement between the two groups (Johnson, Merrell, & Stover, 1990; Mantzicopoulos, 1997). McCombs-Thomas, Armistead, Kempton, Lynch, Forehand, Nousianen, Neighbors, and Tannenbaum (1992) found that, especially for white students, long term effects of early retention were poor academic and social functioning. Even though the results are somewhat mixed, the bottom line is should we risk the chance of these students dropping out of school?

McLeskey and Grizzle (1992) examined grade retention rates among students with learning disabilities. They found that in Indiana 58% of students identified with learning disabilities had been retained before identification. It seems retention is being used as an ineffective intervention before identification. Between retention and being labeled LD, the risk of dropping out of school is quite high. An effective alternative to both retention and labeling may be pre-referral intervention.

Limitations of the Research

Research strongly supports the negative impact of grade retention. There are limitations to the research though. True experiments can not be found in the literature. Try to find an administrator and a group of parents who will allow children to be randomly assigned to a retention or non-retention group. As a result there has to be a matched group of students who had been recommended for retention, but who had been promoted. Tanner and Galis (1997) discussed the limitation with this type of matching. They state that matching on academic variables is not enough. It can not be assumed that the groups are similar on other variables. The reason that the matched group was ultimately promoted may be an important variable. For example, is it possible that parents who would not allow their children to be retained may make an extra effort at home to work on academics? Tanner and Galis also mentioned the difference same-age and same-grade comparisons. Same-age comparisons should favor promotion, whereas same-grade comparisons should favor retention. Studies with both types of comparisons are the best. A final limitation, found in many areas of research, is the relatively small sample size.

Alternatives to Retention

After reviewing the research and then considering the limitations, it is easier to understand why there is such a disagreement over retention. There are numerous negative effects of retention, yet social promotion results in high school students who are deficient in basic, prerequisite skills. The question therefore is not "to retain or not to retain" it is "what else can be done to help this student who is failing?" The following is a list of alternatives compiled from McDonald and Bean (1992) and Owings and Magliaro (1998).

  1. Require summer school
  2. Offer intensive remediation before and after school
  3. Model and relate school work directly to student interests and needs
  4. Initiate academic incentive programs
  5. Delay testing until the fall rather than early spring assuming no more learning will occur
  6. Institute an optional learning resource program
  7. Insist on superior quality of work from students. Require revisions
  8. Stress counseling and study skills programs
  9. Employ suitable strategies such as cooperative learning, mastery learning, direct instruction, adaptive education, individualized instruction, peer tutoring, and curriculum-based assessment
  10. Improve and maintain home-school collaboration
  11. Encourage student responsibility for self-evaluation
  12. Allow tests to be finished individually or cooperatively. Amount of time should not be a factor
  13. Recommend smaller classes with higher levels of individualized instruction

Related Links

For parents: Should My Child Repeat A Grade? A paper for parents by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

NASP's position on grade retention

Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion.

Position Statement: Student Grade Retention

Commentary: Grade Retention Doesn't Work

Educators' Notebook - Grade Retention

When Teachers Recommend Retention, What Should Parents Do?

Special Education Law - To Promote or Retain

American Journal: Schools abandon 'social promotion' Chicago sets an example by forcing urban students to repeat grades. - 8/27/97

News: Promote or Retain? Pendulum for Students Swings Back Again 6/11/97

News: U.S. Kindergarten Study Sheds Light on Retention, Delayed Entry 1/28/98

Special Education Law - How Principals View Learning Problems and Problem Students



Foster, J. E. (1993). Reviews of research: Retaining children in grade. Childhood Education, 70, 38-43.

Holmes, C. T. & Matthews, K. M. (1984). The effects of nonpromotion on elementary and junior high school pupils: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 54, 225-236.

Johnson, E. R., Merrell, K. W., & Stover, L. (1990). The effects of early grade retention on the academic achievement of fourth-grade students. Psychology in the Schools, 27, 333-338.

Mantzicopoulos, P. Y. (1997). Do certain groups of children profit from early retention? A follow-up study of kindergartners with attention problems. Psychology in the Schools, 34, 115-127.

McCombs-Thomas, A., Armistead, L., Kempton, T., Lynch, S., Forehand, R., Nousiainen, S., Neighbors, B., & Tannenbaum, L. (1992). Early retention: Are there long term beneficial effects? Psychology in the Schools, 29, 342-347.

McDonald, L.R. & Bean, L.C. (1992). Thinking of retaining a student? Try one or more of the twenty-five alternatives to retention. Education, 112, 567-570.

McLeskey, J. & Grizzle, K. L. (1992). Grade retention rates among students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 58, 548-554.

Owings, W. A. & Magliaro, S. (1998). Grade retention: A history of failure. Educational Leadership, 56, 86-88.

Tanner, C. K. & Galis, S.A. (1997). Student retention: Why is there a gap between the majority of research findings and school practice? Psychology in the Schools, 34, 107-113.