The Retention Dilemma  

The Retention Dilemma

Sometimes children are recommended for retention when their academic performance is low or if they fail to meet grade-level performance standards established by the district or state. Some children may be recommended for retention if they seem socially immature, display behavior problems, or are just beginning to learn English. Occasionally, students who have missed many school days because they were ill or because of frequent moves are recommended for retention.

Research indicates that neither grade retention nor social promotion (the practice of promoting students with their same age-peers although they have not mastered current grade level content) is likely to enhance a child’s learning. Research and common sense both indicate that simply having a child repeat a grade is unlikely to address the problems a child is experiencing. Likewise, simply promoting a student who is experiencing academic or behavioral problems to the next grade without additional support is not likely to be an effective solution either.

When faced with a recommendation to retain a child, the real task is not to decide to retain or not to retain but, rather, to identify specific intervention strategies to enhance the cognitive and social development of the child and promote his or her learning and success at school.

Given the evidence indicating that grade retention, when compared with social promotion of similar children, is an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention, “promotion plus” (i.e., combining grade promotion and effective, evidence-based interventions) is most likely to benefit children with low achievement or behavior problems.

Too often, anecdotal evidence, clinical experience, and folklore overshadow the results of empirical research. But what does research show? Is retention effective? The following information, taken from research during the last 100 years, can help parents better understand the possible effects of retention on their child and advocate for effective intervention strategies.

Effects of grade retention
The body of research on retention indicates that:

  • Initial academic improvements may occur during the year the student is retained. However, many research studies show that achievement gains decline within 2–3 years of retention. This means that over time, children who were retained either do not show higher achievement, or sometimes show lower achievement than similar groups of children who were not retained. Without specific interventions, most retained students do not catch up.
  • In adolescence, retained students are more likely to experience problems such as poor interactions with peers, disliking school, behavior problems, and lower self-esteem.
  • Students who were retained are 5–11 times more likely to drop out of school. The probability is even higher for students who are retained more than once. Actually, grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school drop out.
  • For most students, grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (e.g., reading, math, and oral and written language) and social and emotional adjustment (e.g., peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).
  • A study of sixth graders’ perceptions indicated that they consider retention as one of the most stressful life events.
  • Retention may help students who have missed many days of school, but only if their attendance improves and if the child will not be considerably older than the other students. At this time, however, there are no specific indicators that predict which children could benefit from retention.

Alternative Strategies to Retention

ESU 10 staff support districts which we serve to better address academic and behavior problems through the following evidenced-based alternatives to grade retention and social promotion:

  • Tier I supports through MTSS which promotes age-appropriate and culturally sensitive instructional strategies to accelerate progress in all classrooms.
  • Early developmental intervention to enhance language and social skills.
  • Systematic methods to monitor progress, identify strengths and weaknesses, and identify the most effective methods of instruction.
  • School-based mental health programs to promote the social and emotional adjustment of children through support of the MTSS process and the use of Licensed Mental Health Practitioners (LMHPs) contracted through ESU 10.
  • Student support teams with school professionals to assess and identify specific learning or behavior problems, design interventions to address those problems, and evaluate the efficacy of those interventions.
  • Behavior management strategies to reduce classroom behavior problems that interfere with learning.
  • Extended school year services that focus on improving the development of academic skills.
  • Comprehensive school-wide programs to promote the social and academic skills of all students.
  • Consultation and collaboration with parents about their child’s education through ongoing communication about their child’s progress and frequent contact with teachers.

Adapted from “Grade Retention and Promotion: Information for Parents”
By Shane R. Jimerson, PhD, NCSP, Sarah M. Woehr, & Amber M. Kaufman, MA University of California, Santa Barbara


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