"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." – Thomas Jefferson

Research on Retention in Grade

Research on Retention in Grade

[Updated February 24, 2020. Please report any dead or missing links using the Contact Me form in the right column.]

Attention, Not Retention
April 2014
Retaining students is a shortcut answer to a problem that actually works against our goals as educators. Educators would do better to attend to their struggling students with programmatic changes than with this mean spirited “hold them back” approach.

Let us attend to our struggling students, not condemn them to the false promise of improvement through grade retention.

Beyond Grade Retention and Social Promotion: Interventions to Promote Social Cognitive Competence, January 2002

Amidst the contemporary socio-political zeitgeist emphasizing educational standards and accountability, debates are resurfacing regarding the relative merits and limitations of grade retention and social promotion. Although simply promoting students is not likely to enhance educational success, the confluence of research examining the effectiveness of grade retention on academic achievement and socio-emotional adjustment does not support this strategy as an educational intervention. The recognition of the interconnectedness between socio-emotional adjustment and academic achievement has recently received further attention in the educational literature. There is also an increasing emphasis on implementing empirically supported, proven,or promising educational intervention strategies. The purpose of this paper is to encourage and prepare educational professionals to move beyond solely utilizing grade retention and social promotion as academic interventions. This article reviews empirically supported prevention and intervention strategies that strengthen the social and cognitive competence of children who are at risk of either “grade retention” or “social promotion.”

Children ages 6 to 17 who repeated one or more grades since starting kindergarten in the United States - 2016-2017 Data
United States
Number - 3,171,040
Percent - 7%

Number - 75,761
Percent - 7%

Early retention has caused disadvantages for children including lower achievement, aggression, high school drop-out, and dramatically reduced college attendance. These differences remained statistically significant after controlling for later achievement as well as demographic factors that may have influenced the initial decision to retain.

Does Repeating a Grade Ever Work? - 2010
Retention is rarely a solution for under-achievement problems. It is effective only when all of the following questions can be answered with a resounding YES.


1. Have the root causes of the problem been discovered?

2. Has an effective plan of treatment been developed and accepted by both the professionals and the parents?

3. Does the Light's Retention Scale indicate the child is a good candidate for retention?

4. Does the student feel good about the retention?

5. Do the parents feel good about the retention?

6. Does the school feel good about the retention?

If any one of these questions receives a negative answer, forget about the retention until all six questions receive a resounding YES.

Dropout Rates after High-Stakes Testing in Elementary School: A Study of the Contradictory Effects of Chicago's Efforts to End Social Promotion - 2005
The results indicate that retention by the policy did have adverse effects on dropping out, but the relationship was smaller than seen with traditional teacher-initiated retention and was unrelated to the timing of dropping out. Systemwide, slight decreases in dropout rates among the 90% of students who were not retained counterbalanced the higher dropout rates among those retained.

Early intervention works, grade retention doesn’t, November 15, 1999
The study’s major finding: Over time, grade retention does not benefit the children it is designed to help.

“The question is,” says Reynolds, “do retained children bounce back and catch up with their promoted peers in performance? The answer is no.”

In fact, retained children in the study underperformed not only their same-age promoted peers, but also their new, younger classmates after being held back in elementary school during the study period of 1987-1993. Retained students scored about seven months lower in both reading and math achievement than their promoted peers and four months lower in math achievement than their new same-grade peers.

Education in Two Worlds: Follow Up to "50 Myths and Lies"  - 2014
...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.

The Effect of Grade Retention on High School Completion, October 2007
Low-achieving students in many school districts are retained in a grade in order to allow them to gain the academic or social skills that teachers believe are necessary to succeed academically. This practice is highly controversial, with many researchers claiming that it leads to higher dropout rates although selection issues have complicated previous analyses. In this paper, we use a regression discontinuity design to examine the impact of grade retention on high school completion. We find that grade retention leads to a modest increase in the probability of dropping out for older students, but has no significant effect on younger students.

The Effect of Retaining Kindergarten Students on Reading and Mathematics Achievement, November 28, 2005
Retention policies have significant negative effects on retained students and little or no significant effects on their promoted peers. Estimates suggest that promoted students would show lower growth if they had been retained, whereas retained students would experience higher growth if promoted.

The Effects of Mandated Third Grade Retention on Standard Diploma Acquisition and Student Outcomes Over Time: A Policy Analysis of Florida's A+ Plan: Full Dissertation - 2016

The Effects of Mandated Third Grade Retention on Standard Diploma Acquisition and Student Outcomes Over Time: A Policy Analysis of Florida's A+ Plan: Executive Summary - 2017
Summary of the Research
In a study of first, third, and sixth graders, researchers asked students to rate a list of 20 stressful life events based on level. Researchers found students, across grade levels, rated the top three stressful life events in this order: losing a parent, going blind, and being retained in school (Anderson, Jimerson, and Whipple 2005; Andrew, 2014). Sixth grade students rated grade retention as the most stressful life event, rating retention more stressful than losing a parent or going blind. (Anderson, Jimerson, and Whipple 2005).

Researchers in other studies found students who were retained faced difficulty in catching up to their peers, achieving academically, and obtaining a high school diploma (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2005; Andrew, 2014; Fine & Davis, 2003; Jimerson, 1999; Moser, West & Hughes, 2012; Nagaoka, 2005; and Ou & Reynolds, 2010).

However, in 2003-2004 approximately 23,000 third graders were retained in Florida under the third grade retention mandate outlined in the A+ Plan. This was an effort to increase student achievement by increasing the use of accountability measures.

The current study includes an examination of educational outcomes of students retained in a large southwest Florida school district under the A+ Plan in 2003-2004. Researchers used a match control group, consisting of similarly non-retained students, who scored at level one on the Grade 3 Reading FCAT. The control group was compared to the retained group. Also compared were student achievement levels on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT of the retained and non-retained group. This provided longitudinal data to examine whether or not students who were retained increased their reading achievement over time.

Longitudinal data was evaluated for both the retained and nonretained students. Researchers found 93% of the retained students continued to score below proficiency (below a level 3) seven years after retention on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT as compared with the 85.8% of the non-retained students...

Also examined in the study was standard diploma acquisition of the retained and non-retained group. The non-retained group was 14.7% more likely to obtain a standard high school diploma than the retained group.

Elementary Teachers' Beliefs and Knowledge About Grade Retention: How Do We Know What They Know?, December 2004

Elementary teachers' beliefs, knowledge, and practice relating to retention were explored using an adapted version of the Teacher Retention Beliefs Questionnaire (Tompchin & Impara, 1992). A researcher-developed knowledge section was added to the original questionnaire to measure teachers' propositional knowledge of retention. Thirty-five, K-4 teachers from a rural school district in northeastern United States completed the questionnaire. Teachers from all grade levels believed retention was an acceptable practice. Students' academic performance was the most influential factor in retention decisions. Significant differences between K-2 and 3-4 teachers were found on several belief statements. Teachers' knowledge about the effects and outcomes of retention, measured by factual questions, was low, regardless of grade taught. The majority correctly answered knowledge questions based upon hypothetical students. No significant correlation was found between teachers' knowledge and retention practice. Issues related to the measurement of teacher knowledge and implications of the findings are discussed.

Examining the Impact of Grade RetentionApril 2013
• In general, research has failed to support the idea that retention benefits academic performance in the long‐term...
• Researchers have cautioned that educators and policymakers should avoid the use of a “retention‐promotion” dichotomy, in favor of more comprehensive measures...
• There is a fairly substantial body of literature that suggests retention in the early grades – particularly in kindergarten – is preferable to retention in later years...
• Overall, the research on grade retention suggests that its positive effects are primarily limited to the short term...
• Effects on socio‐emotional outcomes are less clear...

Fair Test: Testing and Grade Retention, August 17, 2007
A long history of research on retention has shown:
  • Retention does not help students to catch up; students who are retained do no better or even worse on standardized tests and other measures
  • Students who are retained drop out more often than other students. Students that have been retained once have a 40% higher chance of dropping out and a 60% higher chance if retained twice. This happens largely because being overage in-grade damages students' self confidence and leads them to disengage from school.
  • Retention rates are higher for African Americans, Latinos and children from low-income families. These students are also the most likely to have the least qualified teachers and other resources to help them succeed. Males are also retained more often than females.
  • Despite what the large body of research says, supporters of retention continue to argue that just the threat of retention will motivate students to work harder and learn more, while those that are retained will learn more after a second repetition. Again, research shows it doesn't work this way. Repeating the same material twice does not result in sustained achievement from retained students, and in the long run, threats prove to be a very weak motivator.
  • Such policies also rest on an unproven assumption that when students aren't learning it is students that are most to blame. Students do hold some responsibility, but teachers, school administrators, parents, and district and state officials all share in the responsibility to provide quality teaching, adequate resources, support and direction. Grade retention policies generally fail to address or improve these critical components to education.

50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools - 2014
The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

First, Do No Harm – 2002
...in more and more states and school districts, testing programs and education practices that are supposed to help low-achieving students are instead putting those students at substantially increased risk of leaving school without the standard high school diplomas that open the doors to much that is good in life.

What Research Says About... / Grade Retention, March 2008
For most students struggling to keep up, retention is not a satisfactory solution. Nor is promotion. Juxtaposing the two as if these are the only options casts the debate in the wrong terms. The challenge is figuring out what it takes to help failing students catch up. Understanding why a particular student has fallen behind points to the best course of action.

For many students, especially those who start school far behind their peers, intensive intervention, even prior to kindergarten, may be the best path to success. For students who are frequently absent, understanding and addressing the reasons for their absences might be the solution.

Retention usually duplicates an entire year of schooling. Other options—such as summer school, before-school and after-school programs, or extra help during the school day—could provide equivalent extra time in more instructionally effective ways. Without early diagnosis and targeted intervention, struggling students are unlikely to catch up whether they are promoted or retained.

The Grade Retention Fallacy by Christopher Edley Jr. and Johanna Wald, December 16, 2002
...on the surface, his statement that ''Holding students back should ultimately help them'' contains certain logic. If a student performs poorly one year, then repeating the grade gives him or her a second chance to catch up. Right? Wrong. Most struggling students don't respond that way, even if educators wish they would.

For 40 years, study after study on grade retention has reached the same conclusion: Failing a student, particularly in the critical ninth grade year, is the single largest predictor of whether he or she drops out. Unless accompanied by targeted and intensive supports and interventions, this practice yields no academic gains for the retained students, results in huge management problems, and financially taxes the school system.

Grade Retention Research, September 4, 2014

A list of articles on Grade Retention Research by P. L. Thomas, Furman University.

Grade Retention: A Three Part Series, January, 2005
In the past century, educational professionals and policymakers have continued to debate whether grade retention or social promotion should be used as an intervention strategy to bring under-achieving students up to standard. The most recent trend clearly favors the use of retention in an attempt to maintain high academic standards and educational accountability. However, a careful investigation of this policy’s effects and costs suggests that it is ineffective and expensive. Policymakers and educational professionals should move beyond retention and social promotion by developing and adopting alternative intervention strategies proven as successful and cost-effective.

Grade Retention: Achievement and Mental Health Outcomes, October 2002
Analysis of multiple studies of retention indicate that retained students experience lower self esteem and lower rates of school attendance, relative to promoted peers (Jimerson, 2001). Both of these factors are further predictive of dropping out of school. Indirectly, low self-esteem and poor school attendance influence adult outcomes. Students who ultimately drop out of school without a diploma face considerable difficulty finding and maintaining employment for self-sufficiency and experience higher rates of mental health problems, chemical abuse and criminal activities than do high school graduates.

Grade Retention: A Flawed Education Strategy – 2005
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.

Grade Retention: Still a Failed Policy - 2005
Important new research by Guanglei Hong and Stephen Raudenbush reinforces years of findings that retaining students in grade harms rather than hurts the retained students without providing benefits to non-retained/promoted students. They looked at young children, whom retention proponents often view as the "safest" children to hold back, and concluded that "the kindergarten retention treatment leaves most retainees even further behind, and, therefore, impedes these children's cognitive development over the repetition year." While students who are retained do better the second year in the same grade, they actually would have learned substantially more if they had been promoted.

Holding Kids Back Doesn't Help Them – 2014
A majority of peer-reviewed studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated that holding students back yields little or no long-term academic benefits and can actually be harmful to students. When improvements in achievement are linked to retention, they are not usually sustained beyond a few years, and there is some evidence for negative effects on self-esteem and emotional well-being.

Indiana to retain students based on test scores despite lack of research support, March 1, 2012
Three major research reviews between 1975 and 2001 concluded there was little evidence that retaining students helped them in the long run, according to a policy brief from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Several studies from the past decade focused on Chicago Public Schools, which implemented test-based retention in the mid-1990s for students in third, sixth and eighth graders.

Jenny Nagaoka and Melissa Roderick at the University of Chicago found that students who were retained continued to struggle to meet academic standards, and 20 percent of them were moved to special-education classes. “In this report, we focus on the question: Did retaining these low-achieving students help? The answer to this question is definitely no,” they wrote.

In-grade Retention National Trends and Civil Rights Concerns, April 2018
Students who are retained do not receive long-term benefits from the practice and usually perform more poorly than low-achieving peers who were not retained (Johnson & Rudolph, 2001; Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012). Retention also is associated with increases in behavior problems and issues with peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance (NASP, 2003; Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012).

Our underserved youth benefit for more from systemic academic supports than from repeating a year of schooling.

Kindergarten retention effect on cognitive growth--an adverse effect, March 3, 2006
The results continue to argue against the benefits of retention and, in fact, suggest that retention can result in stunted cognitive growth in reading and math. Where talking about a potential adverse negative impact of the loss of 2/3 of a standard deviation in cognitive growth in reading and math 1 year after retention.....that is not small!

Yes.....each decision is an n=1 decision. Yes...I know that there will likey be cases where it makes sense...and there will be success stories. But, one cannot argue with the overwhelming empirical evidence that argues against a knee-jerk retention policy. Providing strong, convincing, reasonable evidence in favor of retaining a child in Kdgn would appear to be a burden of proof that those arguing for retention need to bear.

Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century - 2001
Abstract. Retaining a child at grade level has become increasingly popular, consis- tent with the emphasis on accountability and standards in elementary education. This article provides a comprehensive review of the research examining the aca- demic and socioemotional outcomes associated with grade retention. Following a brief historical overview of previously published literature reviews, a summary of studies published between 1990 and 1999 is provided. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 20 recent studies includes: outcome variables (i.e., achievement and socioemotional adjustment), age or grade of retained population, matched or controlled for variables in analyses with comparison groups, and the overall con- clusion regarding the efficacy of grade retention. Results of recent studies and this meta-analysis are consistent with past literature reviews from the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to a summary of the results, the discussion addresses the disparity between educational practice and converging research regarding grade retention and suggests directions for practice. This review encourages researchers, educa- tional professionals, and legislators to abandon the debate regarding social promo- tion and grade retention in favor of a more productive course of action in the new millennium.

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing - 2015
The academic benefits of retention are limited, short-lived, and far outweighed by the negative consequences on students’ development in reading, writing, and all other aspects of literacy. In fact, negative social, emotional, and academic effects of grade retention, at every level, are ongoing and persist into adulthood. Educators, policymakers, and political leaders must oppose the practice of retention.
  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

New research suggests repeating elementary school grades — even kindergarten — is harmful, October 13, 2014
“My study is an argument about how a very expensive policy, grade retention, may actually undermine our shared goals of ensuring even child gets a quality education,” she replied. “I would argue that my study is evidence that we might take funds used for an expensive and likely deleterious policy and use them for earlier, pre-school interventions and …supplemental services… to help get a student up to speed.”

Position statement on Grade Retention and Social Promotion - National Association of School Psychologists - 2003
The increasing emphasis on educational standards and accountability has rekindled public and professional debate regarding the use of grade retention as an intervention to remedy academic deficits. While some politicians, professionals, and organizations have called for an end to “social promotion,” many states and districts have established promotion standards.

Despite a century of research that fails to support the efficacy of grade retention, the use of grade retention has increased over the past 25 years. It is estimated that as many as 15% of American students are held back each year, and 30% – 50% of students in the US are retained at least once before ninth grade. Furthermore, the highest retention rates are found among poor, minority, inner-city youth. Research indicates that neither grade retention nor social promotion is an effective strategy for improving educational success. Evidence from research and practice highlights the importance of seeking alternatives that will promote social and cognitive competence of children and enhance educational outcomes.

Poverty and Potential - 2009
The U.S. has set as a national goal the narrowing of the achievement gap between lower income and middle-class students, and that between racial and ethnic groups. This is a key purpose of the No Child Left Behind act, which relies primarily on assessment to promote changes within schools to accomplish that goal. However, out-of-school factors (OSFs) play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps, and if these factors are not attended to with equal vigor, our national aspirations will be thwarted.

Punitive Policies – Third Grade Retention
These policies disproportionately affect students of color students living in poverty, English language learners (ELL), and students with special needs as these subgroups experience significantly lower passing rates on state assessments (Huddleston, 2014; Katsiyannis, Zhang, Ryan & Jones, 2007; Xia & Kirby, 2009). Retention has both short- and long-term negative effects. The short term effects of retention have the potential to stigmatize students as less capable or less intelligent, and these types of stigma can scar their educational careers (Andrew, 2014). Additionally, there is ample research indicating that retention has a negative impact on long-term academic performance and is the single largest predictor of dropping out (Rumberger, 1995; Smith, 2004; Smith and Shepard, 1987).

Racial Justice and Standardized Educational Testing
Students in these groups are more likely to be held back in grade because of low test scores. Grade retention produces no long-term academic benefits; it undermines self-esteem and doubles the likelihood of dropping out. Boys are subject to this damage more often than are girls.

Retained Students and Classmates’ Absences in Urban Schools, May 28, 2013
Research in grade retention has predominantly focused on the effect of this practice on the retained student. This study contributes to the limited body of research examining the effect of retained classmates on the outcomes of other students in the same classroom. Using a longitudinal data set of all elementary school students in a large urban school district, this study evaluates how the percentage of retained classmates affects other students’ absence patterns, both unexcused and excused. Focusing on absences as an outcome is key, as they signal educational disengagement and highly correlate with schooling and lifelong success. Based on quasi-experimental methods, the results indicate that a greater percentage of retained classmates increases other students’ absences. The effect is only present on unexcused absences, not excused absences, hence signaling an increase in disengagement in other students. Individual- and classroom-level moderating effects are evaluated, and policy implications for classroom assignment are discussed.

Retention and FAPE: What Does the Research Say? - 2017
...retention intervention must offer more than a “repeat” of the previous year’s instruction." "The unanimous conclusion from these [research] reviews is that grade retention offers few if any benefits to the retained student and may increase the retained child’s risk for poor school outcomes, including dropping out of school prior to high school graduation.

Retention, Delays and Social Promotion - 2017
We receive dozens of emails every week about retention, social promotion and high-stakes testing. Despite clear evidence that retention does not work - and that it damages children - many school districts continue to use this outmoded policy.

Retention Under Chicago’s High-Stakes Testing Program: Helpful, Harmful, or Harmless?, December 21, 2005
In the mid-1990s, the Chicago Public Schools declared an end to social promotion and instituted promotional requirements based on standardized test scores in the third, sixth, and eighth grades. This article examines the experience of third and sixth graders who were retained under Chicago’s policy from 1997 to 2000. The authors examine the progress of these students for 2 years after they were retained and estimate the short-term effects of retention on reading achievement. Students who were retained under Chicago’s high-stakes testing policy continued to struggle during their retained year and faced significantly increased rates of special education placement. Among third graders, there is no evidence that retention led to greater achievement growth 2 years after the promotional gate. Among sixth graders, there is evidence that retention was associated with lower achievement growth. The effects of retention were estimated by using a growth curve analysis. Comparison groups were constructed by using variation across time in the administration of the policy, and by comparing the achievement growth of a group of low-achieving students who just missed passing the promotional cutoff to a comparison group of students who narrowly met the promotional cutoff at the end of the summer. The robustness of the findings was tested using an instrumental variable approach to address selection effects in estimates.

Retaining Students in Grade: A Literature Review of the Effects of Retention on Students’ Academic and Nonacademic Outcomes, 2009
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.

Retaining 3rd Graders: Child Abuse, Mississippi Style - 2015
While anecdotal reports of successful retention experiences exist, the overwhelming weight of the evidence shows that retention is a failed policy.

Should Students Be Allowed to Fail Grades? – 2011
Research over the past 100 years has shown that grade retention does not benefit students having academic or social adjustment difficulties compared to similar students who are not held back to repeat a grade. In fact, grade retention has consistently been associated with negative outcomes...

Social Promotion - In Comparison to Grade Retention, Advantages and Disadvantages, Different Perspectives – 2007
Researchers and reviewers who have focused on grade retention and social promotion typically conclude that neither policy is an effective treatment for unsatisfactory achievement, but if one must choose between them, social promotion is preferable. This is because grade retention imposes too many social and motivational costs, and students appear to get more out of a year spent in the next grade than they do out of a year spent repeating a grade, even though they are likely to continue to achieve less successfully than their classmates. However, social promotion does not help low achievers to begin to catch up with their age peers. Therefore, better than either social promotion or grade retention are policies that mobilize schools to identify struggling students early and provide them with special forms of assistance that might allow them to achieve more satisfactorily (placement in smaller classes, provision of tutoring or other special assistance, enrollment in after-school or summer school programs, and so on). Organizations such as the International Reading Association and the National Association of School Psychologists have published policy statements advocating this approach to students who are not achieving satisfactorily. Some ideas about intervention alternatives to both grade retention and social promotion mentioned by McCay (2001) and U.S. Department of Education (1999) include setting clear performance standards at key grades, emphasizing early childhood literacy, providing high-quality curriculum and instruction and professional development, reducing class sizes in the primary grades, keeping students and teachers together for more than one year, and using effective student grouping practices.

The Spillover Effects of Grade-Retained Classmates: Evidence from Urban Elementary Schools - 2013
All results indicate that the effects of having a greater number of grade-retained peers are detrimental to the standardized achievement outcomes of nonretained classmates.

Student Grade Retention - 1999
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

Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention – 1990
Remedial help, before- and after-school programs, summer school, instructional aides to work with target children in the regular classroom, and no-cost peer tutoring are all more effective than retention.

Third Grade Again: The Trouble With Holding Students Back - 2012
Arizona, along with Indiana and Oklahoma, recently passed legislation to hold back third graders who are not reading at grade level. When asked where he stood on his state's initiative to hold back third graders, educational psychologist David Berliner -- the Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University -- was blunt in his assessment.

"It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental," Berliner said. "Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn't reading well in third grade that it's a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you're going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you're going to get a better outcome."

Third Grade Literacy Policies: Identification, Intervention, Retention - 2012
When coupled with strong identification and intervention components, grade retention policies can have positive effects on student achievement. In a meta-analysis of studies of student retention policies, the RAND Corporation found that the most successful retention policies, as measured by student outcomes, are characterized by early assessments and numerous interventions. Where outcomes were most positive for students, remediation often included individualized education plans, continuous evaluation of academic performance, low student-teacher ratios and other intensive interventions. This analysis suggests that while retention policies may generate public interest and a sense of urgency for improving early reading proficiency, similar improvements in student achievement might well be achieved through identification and intervention — without the need for retention. [emphasis added]

Third-Grade Reading Legislation - April 2019
States have approached third-grade reading legislation in a variety of ways: some require retention while others allow for promotion to fourth grade with certain requirements and exemptions. The numbers and map below provide summaries and links to legislation at the state-level:
  • Sixteen states plus D.C. require retention for students not reading at proficiency by the end of third grade,14 of which allow for conditional promotion. See good-cause exemptions below.
  • Good-cause exemptions include: limited English proficient students (typically three or fewer years in an English language acquisition program), special education students, participating in an intervention, parent, principal or teacher recommendations, previous retention, demonstrating proficiency through a portfolio (student work demonstrating mastery of academic standards in reading), or passing an approved alternative reading assessment
  • Eight states allow for retention (or retention is a local decision), but do not require it: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
  • 2019 Legislative Sessions (introduced legislation): Kentucky HB 272 would require third graders not reading proficiently to be retained; Missouri HB 464 would allow for grade retention subsequent to fourth grade (currently not allowed) and Oklahoma Senate Bill 37 and South Carolina HB 3406 would effectively remove retention requirements for third graders not reading proficiently.

Third Grade Reading Retention Does Not Work (Example #6,288,347) - September 2019
...many states have instituted a plan by which students are not allowed to exit third grade until they can show sufficient reading skills (or at least sufficient standardized read test taking skills). This is dumb.

This would be the equivalent of, say, noting that students who are more than four and a half feet tall in third grade are mostly over six feet tall when they graduate from high school. Therefor, in our desire to make graduates taller, we will not let anyone progress beyond third grade until they are at least four and a half feet tall.

The most likely reading of the third grade reading correlation is that some factors are contributing to a poor reading level, and those same factors, exacerbated by reading difficulties, will be obstacles to future success. Third grade reading level is a canary in the coalmine, and you don't fix things by repeatedly sending canaries down there. But canaries are cheap, and fixing coal mines is hard and expensive. Addressing all the problems that hold a small child back-- well, that's complicated and expensive and difficult and it puts a lot of responsibility on the government. It's simpler to just threaten the kid and the teacher and make it their problem.

Trajectories of Math and Reading Achievement in Low Achieving Children in Elementary School: Effects of Early and Later Retention in Grade, August 2012
The initial improvement retained students make, relative to their younger grade mates, is likely a powerful motivator for educators. Teachers of the retained students observe their success in the repeat year classroom but may not have the opportunity to observe these students’ performance 2 to 5 years later. If teachers were made aware that the immediate boost retained children experience dissipates over the following 3–4 years, they might be less likely to recommend this intervention. In essence, by the end of elementary school, children retained and children promoted in first grade do not differ in their levels of achievement in math or reading, but with an additional cost of one year of additional schooling for the retained children.

The Uneven Implementation of Universal School Policies: Maternal Education and Florida’s Mandatory Grade Retention PolicySeptember 2016

Educational accountability policies are a popular tool to close the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. However, these policies may exacerbate inequality if families from advantaged backgrounds are better able to advocate for their children and thus circumvent policy. We investigate this possibility in the context of the early grade retention policy in Florida, which requires all students with reading skills below grade level to be retained in the third grade, yet grants exemptions under special circumstances. We find that Florida’s third-grade retention policy is in fact enforced differentially depending on children’s socioeconomic background, especially maternal education. Holding exemption eligibility constant, scoring right below the promotion cutoff results increases the retention probability 14 percent more for children whose mothers have less than a high school degree as compared to children whose mothers have a bachelor’s degree or more. We also find that the discrepancies in retention rates are mainly driven by the fact that students with well-educated mothers are more likely to be promoted based on subjective exemptions such as teacher portfolios.

Using High-Stakes Assessments for Grade Retention and Graduation Decisions - 2014
... 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.

The results of this review of research addressing the association between grade retention and dropout status clearly demonstrate that early grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of later school withdrawal. As discussed in other research, the short-term benefits of grade retention may dissipate and culminate in later school withdrawal (Jimerson, 1999). The likelihood of dropout is considerably greater for students who have been retained more than once (Mann, 1987; Roderick, 1994; Tuck, 1989). Mann (1987) reports that students who are retained in one grade are 40% to 50% more likely to drop out than promoted students and students who are retained in two grades are 90% more likely to drop out. Upon reflecting on the short-term and long-term outcomes associated with grade retention, Dawson (1998b) concluded “. . . it could be said, that we’ve won the battle but lost the war” (p. 21).

When Kids Are Held Back, Gains Can Follow, July 2017
Key Takeaways
Test-based retention in third grade improved student performance in Florida.
  • Students retained in third grade under Florida’s test-based promotion policy experienced substantial short-term gains in both math and reading achievement. They were less likely to be retained in a later grade and better prepared when they entered high school.
  • Being retained in third grade led students to take fewer remedial courses in high school and improved their grade point averages.
  • There was no negative impact on graduation. Being held back did delay students’ graduation from high school by 0.63 years, but being older for their grade did not reduce their probability of graduating or receiving a regular diploma.