Though national data on grade-retention scarring for more recent cohorts is a long time coming, many state data systems will soon be mature enough to support similarly long-term analyses as those presented here. Based on the research here, however, grade retention in primary school leaves lasting scars on students’ educational careers, lowering the odds of completing a high school credential with the best hopes for recovery relatively early in the educational career.
Grade Retention Research
Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D.R., & Dauber, S.L. (1994). On the success of failure: A reassessment of the effects of retention in the primary grades. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Allensworth, E. M. (2004). Ending Social Promotion: Dropout Rates in Chicago After Implementation of the Eighth-Grade Promotion Gate. Chicago, IL: Consortium for Chicago School Research.
Allensworth, E. M. (2005). Dropout Rates After High-Stakes Testing in Elementary School: A Study of the Contradictory Effects of Chicago’s Efforts to End Social Promotion. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(4), 341–364.
Anderson, G. E., S. R. Jimerson, & A. D. Whipple. (2005). Student Ratings of Stressful Experiences at Home and School: Loss of a Parent and Grade Retention as Superlative Stressors. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21(1), 1–20.
Balitewicz, T. F. (1998). The Long-Term Effects of Grade Retention. ERIC Document No. 424-616.
Belot, M., & Vandenberghe, V. (2009). Grade retention and educational attainment: Exploiting the 2001 reform by the French-speaking community of Belgium and synthetic control methods. Discussion Paper 2009-22. Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales de l’Universite catholique de Louvain. Retrieved from http://sites.uclouvain.be/econ/DP/IRES/2009022.pdf
Berliner, D.C., & Glass, G.V. (2014). 50 myths and lies that threaten America’s public schools: The real crisis in education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Bonvin, P., Bless, G., & Schuepbach, M. (2008). Grade retention: Decision-making and effects on learning as well as social and emotional development. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 19, 1–19.
Bowman, L.J. (2005). Grade retention: Is it a help or hindrance to student academic success? Preventing School Failure, 49, 42–46.
Byrd, R.S., Weitzman, M., & Auinger, P. (1997). Increased behavior problems associated with delayed school entry and delayed school progress. Pediatrics, 100, 654–661.
Demanet, J., & Van Houtte, M. (2013). Grade retention and its association with school misconduct in adolescence: A multilevel approach. School Effectiveness and School Improvement: An International Journal of Research, Policy and Practice, 24(4), 417-434.
Ehmke, T., Drechsel, B., & Carstensen, C.H. (2010). Effects of grade retention on achievement and self-concept in science and mathematics. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 36, 27–35.
El-hassan, K. (1998). Relation of academic history and demographic variables to grade retention in Lebanon. The Journal of Educational Research, 91(5), 279-289.
Finlayson, H.J. (1977). Non-promotion and self-concept development. Phi Delta Kappan, 59, 205–206.
Frey, N. (2005, November/December). Retention, social promotion, and academic redshirting: What do we know and need to know? Remedial and Special Education, 26(6), 332-346.
Glick, P., & Sahn, D.E. (2010). Early academic performance, grade repetition, and school attainment in Senegal: A panel data analysis. The World Bank Economic Review. Retrieved from http://wber.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2010/01/25/wber.lhp023.abstract
Gottfredson, D.C., Fink, C.M., & Graham, N. (1994). Grade retention and problem behavior. American Educational Research Journal, 31, 761–784.
Gottfried, M. A. (2013, May). The spillover effects of grade-retained classmates: Evidence from urban elementary schools. American Journal of Education, 119(3), 405-444.
Grade retention and social promotion. (2011). White Paper. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Heubert, J.P. (2002/2003, December/January). First, do no harm. Educational Leadership, 60(4), 26-30.
Holmes, C.T. (1989). Grade level retention effects: A meta-analysis of research studies. In L.A. Shepard & M.L. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 16–33). London, UK: Falmer Press.
Hong, G., & Raudenbush, S.W. (2005). Effects of Kindergarten retention policy on children’s cognitive growth in reading and mathematics. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27, 205–224.
Hong, G., & Raudenbush, S.W. (2006). Evaluating Kindergarten retention policy: A case study of causal inference for multilevel observational data. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 101, 901–910.
Hong, G., & Yu, B. (2008). Effects of Kindergarten retention on children’s social-emotional development: An application of propensity score method to multivariate, multilevel data. Developmental Psychology, 44, 407–421.
Jackson, G.B. (1975). Research evidence on effects of grade retention. Review of Educational Research, 45, 613–635.
Jimerson, S., Carlson, E., Rotert, M., Egeland, B., & Sroufe, L.A. (1997). A prospective, longitudinal study of the correlates and consequences of early grade retention. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 3–25.
Jimerson, S.R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30, 420–437.
Jimerson, S.R., Anderson, G.E., & Whipple, A.D. (2002). Winning the battle and losing the war: Examining the relation between grade retention and dropping out of high school. Psychology in the Schools, 39, 441–457.
Jimerson, S.R., & Ferguson, P. (2007). A longitudinal study of grade retention: Academic and behavioral outcomes of retained students through adolescence. School Psychology Quarterly, 22, 314–339.
Juchtmans, G., Belfi, B., De Fraine, B., Goos, M., Knipprath, H., Vandenbroucke, A., & Verbeeck, B. (Eds.). (2011). Samen tot aan de meet. Alternatieven voor zittenblijven [Together until the end.Alternatives for retention]. Antwerpen, Belgium: Garant.
Karweit, N.L. (1999). Grade retention: Prevalence, timing, and effects (Report No. 33). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.
Lorence, J. (2006). Retention and academic achievement research revisited from a United States perspective. International Educational Journal, 7, 731–777.
Lorence, J., & Dworkin, A.G. (2006). Elementary grade retention in Texas and reading achievement among racial groups: 1994–2002. Review of Policy Research, 23, 999–1033.
McCoy, A.R., & Reynolds, A.J. (1999). Grade retention and school performance: An extended investigation. Journal of School Psychology, 37, 273–298.
Meisels, S.J., & Liaw, F.R. (1993). Failure in grade. Do retained students catch up? Journal of Educational Research, 87, 69–77.
Ozek, U. (2013, April). Hold back to move forward? Early grade retention and student behavior. Working Paper 100. CALDER: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Retrieved from http://www.caldercenter.org/sites/default/files/WP-100.pdf
Pagani, L., Tremblay, R.E., Vitaro, F., Boulerice, B., & McDuff, P. (2001). Effects of grade retention on academic performance and behavioral development. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 297–315.
Peterson, S.E., Degracie, J.S., & Ayabe, C.R. (1987). A longitudinal study of the effects of retention/promotion on academic achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 24, 107–118.
Rose, S. (2012, August). Third grade reading policies. Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/03/47/10347.pdf
Rose, S., & Schimke, K. (2012, March). Third grade literacy policies: Identification, intervention, retention. Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/01/54/10154.pdf
Smith, M.L., & Shepard, L.A. (1987, October). What doesn’t work: Explaining policies of retention in the early grades. Phi Delta Kappan, 129-134.
Shepard, L.A., & Smith, M.L. (1990). Synthesis of research on grade retention. Educational Leadership, 47, 84–88.
Stearns, E., Moller, S., Blau, J., & Potochnick, S. (2007). Staying back and dropping out: The relationship between grade retention and school dropout. Sociology of Education, 80, 210–240.
Van Houtte, M., Stevens, P.A.J., Sels, A., Soens, K., & Van Rossem, R. (2005). De invloed van structurele en compositorische schoolkenmerken op prestaties en welbevinden van leerlingen in het secundaironderwijs: een verklaring via cultuur [The influence of structural and compositional school features on achievement and well-being of students in secondary education: an explanation through culture]. Unpublished first research report, Vakgroep sociologie, onderzoeksgroep jeugd, onderwijs en gender, Universiteit Gent, Gent, Belgium.
Van Petegem, P., & Schuermans, G. (2005). Zittenblijven in Vlaanderen. De relatie tussen dubbelen in het secundair onderwijs en de schoolloopbaan in het hoger onderwijs [Retention in Flanders: The relation between secondary school retention and the educational career in higher education]. Impuls, 36, 3–12.
Wu, W., West, S.G., & Hughes, J.N. (2010). Effect of grade retention in first grade on psychosocial outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 135–152.
Xia, N., & Glennie, E. (2005). Grade Retention: A Three Part Series. Durham, NC: Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University.
Xia, N., & Kirby, S.N. (2009). Retaining students in grade: A literature review of the effects of retention on students’ academic and nonacademic outcomes. RAND Corporation. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2009/RAND_TR678.pdf
Selected Excerpts and Links
It is the position of the International Reading Association (IRA) that grade retention and high school graduation decisions must be based on a more complete picture of a student’s literacy performance, obtained from a variety of systematic assessments, including informal observations, formative assessments of schoolwork, and consideration of out-of-school literacies, as well as results on standardized formal measures. Further, it is the position of IRA that in addition to these considerations, teachers’ professional judgment should be a major factor in such decisions, along with input from students and their families….
IRA recognizes the need to improve the literacy achievement of many students. However, high-stakes assessments do not provide a complete picture of students’ literacy knowledge and accomplishments and should not be used to make decisions about student grade retention or high school graduation.
Grade Retention: U.S.
Third Grade Reading Policies, Rose (2012)
In 2012, 14 states passed legislation geared toward improving 3rd-grade literacy through identification, intervention, and/or retention initiatives. Today, a total of 32 states and the District of Columbia have policies in statute aimed at improving 3rd-grade reading proficiency. The majority of these states require early assessment and intervention, often as early as kindergarten. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia require retention of students on the basis of reading proficiency, most which require assessment and remediation for students in all K-3 grades.
This paper identifies statutory provisions regarding identification of, intervention for, and retention of struggling readers in the P-3 grades. A state-by-state policy summary is included in Appendix A. For examples of statutory language, see Appendix B. Examples of notable changes made this year are included in Appendix C. Note: for state responses to improving 3rd-grade reading proficiency, see the March 2012 ECS report Third Grade Literacy Policies: Identification, Intervention, Retention. For recent trends in reading/literacy policy activity, see the ECS State Policy Database.
Third Grade Literacy Policies: Identification, Intervention, Retention, S. Rose and K. Schimke (2012, March)
While retention policies are receiving a lot of attention due to a push to improve 3rd-grade reading, early identification and intervention are more likely to improve student performance. Mandates from 3rd-grade retention policies in both Florida and NYC appear to have motivated school leaders and teachers to intervene earlier and more intensively, but states might be able to achieve a similar sense of urgency without implementing promotion gates. Given the potential negative effects of holding children back, grade retention is not a policy to be entered into lightly, especially without strong early identification and intervention initiatives in place. Both Florida and New York City provide good examples of assessment and remediation programs that can help students improve their early literacy skills. Retention is one means of creating a sense of urgency around 3rd-grade reading; policymakers should consider others as well.
What is clear from the examples of Florida and NYC is that retention should not be the first or only step taken to improve the skills of struggling readers. The earlier children are identified for services and receive specialized attention, the more likely they are to improve their knowledge and skills. Given the importance of birth to age 5 in brain development, and research surrounding the positive effects of quality pre-K, it follows that successful 3rd-grade literacy initiatives should expand access to quality pre-K and promote programs that include rich, rigorous bodies of content. Strong leadership, professional development for teachers and parental involvement are also important in helping educators identify and successfully intervene with struggling students.
Education in Two Worlds: Follow Up to “50 Myths & Lies,” Gene V. Glass
A second myth we see as dangerous has that quality because of what it reveals about too many of America’s politicians and school leaders: it reveals both their ignorance and their cruelty! This is the myth that leaving a child back in grade who is not doing well academically is good for the child. It provides the child with “the gift of time” to catch up. We believe that only ignorant and cruel people would support such a policy, although it is law in about a dozen states, including Arizona and Florida. First of all, a large and quite consistent set of research studies, many of excellent quality, point out that for the vast majority of the children retention in grade has either no benefit, or is detrimental. Only rarely does retention benefit the child who was left back. So the research overwhelming suggests that those who recommend retention are likely to be ignorant. Second, an important piece of the rationale for retention policies is that if you cannot read well by third grade you are more likely to be a school failure. But reading expert Stephen Krashen disputes this, citing research on 12 young students with serious reading problems, dyslexics all. Eleven of the twelve did not learn to read well until they were between 10 and 12 years of age, and one did not learn to read until he was in 12th grade. Among these slow learners, all of whom would have been left back in Florida and Arizona, were nine who published creative scholarly works, and one who became a Nobel laureate. So not doing well by third grade does not determine one’s destiny. Third, the research informs us that retention policies are disproportionately directed at those who are poor, male, English language learners, and children of color. Middle class white children are rarely left back. Fourth, a retention decision changes family dynamics. Parents and siblings change in their treatment of, and aspirations for, the child identified by the school as having “flunked.” Of course, the schools do not say a child is dumb. Instead they offer the children and the families “the gift of time” to catch up. But the world interprets that gift more cruelly. Fifth, being left back is associated with much higher rates of dropping out before completion of high school. Thus, the social costs of this policy go way up since these children are more likely to need assistance in living because of poor wage earning capacity, and there is also the greater likelihood of a higher incarceration rate for people that do not finish school and cannot find decent work. Sixth, when surveyed, children left back say it feels as bad as losing a parent or going blind. It is an overwhelmingly negative event in the lives of the vast majority of the retained children, so leaving them back is cruel as well as a reflection of the ignorance of those who promote these policies. Seventh, and finally, the same costs expended for an extra year of education for the child who is held back, say eight thousand dollars, could more profitably be spent on a more beneficial treatment than repetition of a grade. A certified reading specialist, working twice a week as a tutor throughout the school year and for some part of the summer, would have greater success in improving a child’s academic performance. There is no more powerful treatment than tutoring, and in this case it is cheaper and more humane than is flunking a child. For the seven reasons given, we can think of no education policy that reflects worse on America’s politicians and educators than the policy of retaining students in grade.
Test-based accountability has become the new norm in public education over the last decade. In many states and school districts nation-wide, student performance in standardized tests plays an important role in high-stakes decisions such as grade retention. This study examines the effects of grade retention on student misbehavior in Florida, which requires students with reading skills below grade level to be retained in the 3rd grade. The regression discontinuity estimates suggest that grade retention increases the likelihood of disciplinary incidents and suspensions in the years that follow. The findings also suggest that these adverse effects are concentrated among economically disadvantaged students.
Retaining Students in Grade A Literature Review of the Effects of Retention on Students’ Academic and Nonacademic Outcomes, Nailing Xia, Sheila Nataraj Kirby (2009) [See references]
Our review of these 91 studies indicates that grade retention is associated with gender, race, SES, age for grade, student mobility, family and parental characteristics, prior academic achievement, prior behavioral and socioemotional development, and student health. Converging evidence suggests that grade retention alone is not an effective intervention strategy for improving academic and longer-term life outcomes. In general, retention does not appear to benefit students academically. Although some studies have found academic improvement in the immediate years after retention, these gains are usually short-lived and tend to fade over time. Past research has consistently shown that retained students are at significantly increased risk of dropping out of school. Although only a few studies have examined the effects of retention on postsecondary outcomes, the available evidence suggests negative effects on enrollment in postsecondary education and on employment outcomes in adulthood. Overall, the literature indicates mixed findings on attitudinal, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomes among the retained students….Our review found fruitful avenues of research, most notably the impact of supportive interventions (such as early identification of at-risk students, academic instructional services provided in and out of school, and different types of intervention strategies) on proximal and future student outcomes.
The Spillover Effects of Grade-Retained Classmates: Evidence from Urban Elementary Schools, Michael A. Gottfried, American Journal of Education 119 (May 2013)
Retention, Social Promotion, and Academic Redshirting: What Do We Know and Need to Know?, Nancy Frey, Remedial and Special Education, volume 26, number 6, November/December 2005, pages 332-346
The evidence gathered in the last 30 years on the practice of retention suggests that it is academically ineffective and is potentially detrimental to children’s social and emotional health. The seeds of failure may be sown early for students who are retained, as they are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Furthermore, the trajectory of adverse outcomes appears to continue into young adulthood, when wages and postsecondary educational opportunities are depressed.
Dropout Rates after High-Stakes Testing in Elementary School: A Study of the Contradictory Effects of Chicago’s Efforts to End Social Promotion, Elaine M. Allensworth, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 341-364
Alternative to Grade Retention, Jimerson, Pletcher, and Kerr (2005)
Given the accumulating evidence that grade retention is an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention, it is imperative that school administrators advocate for “promotion plus” policies that depend on effective, evidence-based interventions. The issue for secondary school educators is twofold. Not only must educators determine whether retention is appropriate for a given student, they also need to address the negative academic, social, and emotional consequences for students who were retained in earlier grades. Very often the student’s original difficulties persist, or more likely worsen, as their school career progresses.
Winning the Battle and Losing the War, Jimerson, Anderson, and Whipple, Psychology in the Schools, 39(4), 2002
Considering the results of this review of research examining the association between grade retention and high school dropout and other reviews of research addressing the efﬁcacy of grade retention (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001a, 2001b; Smith & Shepard, 1987, 1988), we must move beyond the use of grade retention as an intervention strategy and attempt to implement those strategies research has demonstrated to be effective (Jimerson, 2001a). Educational professionals, researchers, parents, and policymakers would be remiss to overlook the implications of research that demonstrate the association between grade retention and school dropout. Furthermore, a new imperative has emerged, where the onus is on programs training future educational professionals to disseminate the results of the recent research presented in this review. It is crucial that we transcend limited solutions and begin to consider student developmental and achievement trajectories in order to reinforce and strengthen pathways that promote social and cognitive competence and lead to academic success.
Some stakeholders in Florida believe that the “hard line in the sand” created by mandatory, test-based retention created a motivational difference in teachers and parents…, since it is thought that many of the same learning supports were being provided to struggling students prior to the policy. This may be the case for test score gains close to the retention year, but given the well-known longer-term negative effect of retention on drop-out rates (e.g., Allensworth, 2005) as well as the assured delayed entry into the workforce, Florida’s evidence falls far short of even suggesting that retention is the only or best way to motivate a real positive difference for struggling students, nor has it contradicted the overwhelming evidence against retention prior and since.
What Doesn’t Work, Smith and Shepard (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1987)
Exploring the Association Between Grade Retention and Dropout, Jimerson, et al. (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 7, pp. 51-62, 2002)
Ultimately, the research is unequivocal in identifying that grade retention does not appear to address the needs of these students at risk of academic failure. Findings from this study should not be misinterpreted as an indication that retention was an effective intervention strategy for the retained students who did not drop out of high school. There is a need for further research comparing the retained students who completed high school with matched comparison groups of similarly low achieving but socially promoted students. This study highlights the association of early socio-emotional and behavioral adjustment and high school dropout among a group of retained students. These findings have direct implications for school psychologists and other educational professionals. In particular, rather than focusing on the unsupported academic intervention of grade retention, it is time to implement prevention and intervention programs that have been empirically demonstrated to meet the needs of these students in facilitating both positive academic success and socio-emotional adjustment.
Grade Retention: A Flawed Education Strategy, Xia and Glennia (part 1)
Decades of research suggest that grade retention does not work as a panacea for poor student performance. The majority of research fails to find compelling evidence that retention improves long-term student achievement. An overwhelmingly large body of studies have consistently demonstrated negative academic effects of retention. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have almost unanimously found that early retention during kindergarten to grade three is harmful, both academically and emotionally.  Many studies find that retention does not necessarily lead to increased work effort among students as predicted.
Cost-Benefit Analysis of Grade Retention, Xia and Glennia (part 2)
Grade Retention: The Gap Between Research and Practice, Xia and Glennia (part 3)
The majority of published studies and decades of research indicate that there is usually little to be gained, and much harm that may be done through retaining students in grade. Yet, many educators continue to use retention as a way to improve student achievement and claim that it produces positive results. The consequence is while a growing body of studies show that retention does not improve academic performance and has a number of negative side effects, more and more states and school districts have adopted retention policy in an effort to enhance the educational accountability.
Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention, Shepard and Smith (Educational Leadership, May 1990)
Grade Retention [a synthesis]
Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century, Shane R. Jimerson (School Psychology Review, 2001, Volume 30, No. 3, pp. 420-437)
A Synthesis of Grade Retention Research: Looking Backward and Moving Forward, Shane R. Jimerson (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 6, pp. 47-59, 2001)
In looking backwards at the retention research and previous reviews and meta-analyses, a consistent theme emerges—grade retention is not an empirically supported intervention. As reflected in the results of the three meta-analyses described above, the confluence of results from research during the past century fails to demonstrate achievement, socioemotional, or behavioral advantages of retaining students. Moreover, the research consistently demonstrates that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of high school.
Evaluating Kindergarten Retention Policy, Hong and Raudenbush (September 2006)
First, Do No Harm, Jay P. Heubert (Educational Leadership, December 2002/January 2003)
Holding Kids Back Doesn’t Help Them, Deborah Stipek and Michael Lombardo
Grade Retention and Social Promotion, National Association of School Psychologists
For children experiencing academic, emotional, or behavioral difficulties, neither repeating the same instruction another year nor promoting the student to the next grade is an effective remedy. (p. 5)
Grade Retention: International
This study represents one of the few to investigate the effect of grade retention on students’ school-disruptive behavior in adolescence. It is unique in addressing multilevel issues in this line of research. First, it has shown that it is important to distinguish grade retention at different educational levels. While we find evidence that primary school retention may be associated with less misconduct in adolescence, we establish that secondary school retention may give rise to deviance in adolescence. Moreover, we address the important role of schools’ retention composition, finding that students attending schools with more retainees are more likely to be deviant, although this composition does moderate negative retention effects. Together with previous literature on the effectiveness of grade retention, we advocate the abandonment of this intervention, especially at the secondary level.
See also Demanet and Van Houtte’s cites:
In many countries, the practice of grade retention is widespread (Switzerland: Bonvin, Bless, & Schuepbach, 2008; Germany: Ehmke, Drechsel, & Carstensen, 2010; US: Jimerson, 2001; Lorence &Dworkin, 2006; Canada: Pagani, Tremblay, Vitaro, Boulerice, & McDuff, 2001; Belgium: Juchtmans et al., 2011; Van Petegem & Schuermans, 2005). Proponents believe that giving students ‘‘the gift of time’’ will put them back on track for normal educational growth. Ensuing the popularity of this strategy, a rich body of research has developed to test its effectiveness. The practice has some positive effects on students’ cognitive growth (Alexander, Entwisle, & Dauber, 1994), but these remain mainly short term (Jimerson & Ferguson, 2007; Meisels & Liaw, 1993) and occur only when special help is provided to retained children. In fact, in recent decades many studies have condemned grade retention as an ineffective practice to improve student learning (see, e.g., Bonvin et al., 2008; Jimerson, 2001; McCoy & Reynolds, 1999; Pagani et al., 2001).