Early Childhood Education
Whether it is called nonpromotion, flunking, failing, being held back, the gift of time, or being retained, grade retention refers to a child repeating his or her current grade level again in the following year. Despite a century of research that fails to support the effectiveness of grade retention, its use has increased over the past twenty-five years. Reasons for its dramatic increase as a contemporary educational practice include a renewed emphasis on educational standards and accountability (e.g., No Child Left Behind Act of 2001), increased use of grade level tests determining promotion or retention, and the call to end “social promotion” (i.e., the practice of promoting students with their same age-peers although they have not mastered current grade level content). In spite of its current status as an acceptable educational practice, grade retention remains a controversial intervention strategy.
Who Is Retained and Why?
It is estimated that at least 2 million American students are retained each year, and 30-50 percent of students in some schools in the United States are retained at least once before ninth grade. While the specific factors involved in the decision to retain an individual student vary, several individual, family, and demographic characteristics are associated with an increased risk of retention. For example, research has found that black or Hispanic male students are more likely to have been retained than their peers. Additional characteristics associated with an increased likelihood of grade retention are: (1) late birthdays, delayed development, and/or attention problems, (2) living in poverty or in a single-parent household, (3) frequent school changes and/or chronic absenteeism, (4) lowparental educational attainment and/or parental involvement in education, (5) behavior problems and/or aggressive behavior or immaturity, (6) difficulties with peer relations and/or low self-confidence/self-esteem, and (7) reading problems—including those of English Language Learners.
Some children are recommended for retention when their academic performance is low or if they fail to meet grade level “performance standards” established by a school 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.
Too often, anecdotal evidence, clinical experience, and folklore overshadow the results of empirical research when discussing the merits and limitations of grade retention. Research indicates that neither grade retention nor social promotion alone is an effective strategy for improving educational success. To the contrary, most studies indicate that grade retention is not effective for addressing academic or social/emotional concerns, and, further, that retention is perceived negatively by students and is associated with negative long-term consequences. These research results are not easily understood, however, perhaps because many studies emphasize short-term gains and fail to take into account the long-term consequences of retention.
Research demonstrates that initial academic improvements may occur during the year the student is retained. However, numerous studies reveal that achievement gains decline within two to three 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. For most students, the research suggests that grade retention has a negative impact on all areas of academic 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).
There is evidence of negative effects of retention on long-term school achievement and adjustment. Research demonstrates that during adolescence, the fact of having previously experienced grade retention during elementary school is associated with health-compromising behaviors such as emotional distress, low self-esteem, poor peer relations, cigarette use, alcohol and drug abuse, early onset of sexual activity, suicidal intentions, and violent behaviors. Furthermore, students who were retained are much more likely to drop out of school. Indeed, a recent review of research indicates that grade retention is one of the single most powerful predictors of high school dropout, with retained students being five to eleven times more likely to drop out. In addition to lower levels of academic adjustment in eleventh grade and a greater likelihood of dropping out of high school, retained students are also less likely to receive a diploma by age 20. As adults, individuals who repeated a grade are more likely than adults who did not repeat a grade to be unemployed, living on public assistance, or in prison. Finally, grade retention is perceived negatively by students. In a recent study, sixth-grade students rated grade retention as one of the most stressful life events.
While there may be individual students who benefit from retention, there is currently no systematic means to predict accurately which children will benefit from being retained. Under certain circumstances, retention may be an appropriate educational response that can yield positive effects. For example, students who have difficulty in school because of lack of opportunity for instruction rather than lack of ability may be helped by retention. However, this assumes that the lack of opportunity is related to attendance/health or mobility problems that have been resolved and that the student is no more than one year older than classmates. Considering that research during the past century has failed to support the practice of grade retention, educational professionals must carefully weigh the evidence that potentially supports retention as the preferable choice for a particular student rather than promotion to the next grade.
Alternative Intervention Strategies
In contrast to the negative effects associated with grade retention, research provides evidence supporting other educational interventions that promote the cognitive and social competence of students. Yet neither grade retention nor social promotion is likely to enhance a child’s learning without the presence of other supporting features. 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 without additional support is not likely to be an effective solution. When faced with a recommendation to retain a child, a more effective solution is 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. A combination of grade promotion and utilization of evidence-based interventions (“promotion plus”) is most likely to benefit children with low achievement or behavior problems.
It is important to note that there is no single “silver bullet” intervention that will effectively address the specific needs of low-achieving students. However, the application of evidence-based interventions, selected to meet the diverse needs of individual students, will have a greater chance of facilitating the academic and socioemotional development of students at risk for school failure. It is important to note that effective practices for students at risk tend not to be qualitatively different from the best practices of general education. (See Algozzine, Ysseldyke, and Elliott, 2002, for a review of research-based tactics for effective instruction; and see Shinn, Walker, and Stoner, 2002, for a more extensive discussion of interventions for academic and behavior problems.) The following programs and strategies are examples of evidence-based alternatives to grade retention and social promotion:
• Parental Involvement: Parents should be involved in their children’s schools and education through frequent contact with teachers, supervision of homework, and continual communication about school activities to promote learning.
• Early Reading Programs: Developmentally appropriate, intensive, direct instruction strategies have been effective in promoting the reading skills of low-performing students.
• Early Developmental and Preschool Programs: These programs enhance language and social skills. Implementing prevention and early intervention programs is more promising than waiting for learning difficulties to accumulate. Effective preschool and kindergarten programs develop language and prereading skills using structured, well-organized, and comprehensive approaches. Research suggests that optimally programs follow students and their parents beyond kindergarten and provide support services through the primary grades.
• Age-Appropriate and Culturally Sensitive Instructional Strategies: Such strategies accelerate progress in the classroom.
• Systematic Assessment Strategies: Such strategies, including continuous progress monitoring and formative evaluation, enable ongoing modification of instructional efforts. Effective programs frequently assess student progress and modify instructional strategies accordingly.
• School-Based Mental Health Programs: These programs are valuable in promoting the social and emotional adjustment of children. For instance, addressing behavior problems has been found to be effective in facilitating academic performance.
• Behavior Management and Cognitive-Behavior Modification Strategies: These strategies reduce classroom behavior problems.
• Student Support Teams: These teams should include appropriate professionals to assess and identify specific learning or behavior problems, design interventions to address those problems, and evaluate the efficacy of those interventions. Effective programs tend to accommodate instruction to individual needs and maximize direct instruction.
• Extended Year, Extended Day, and Summer School Programs: Such programs should focus on facilitating the development of academic skills.
• Tutoring and Mentoring Programs: Whether with peer, cross-age, or adult tutors, these programs should focus on promoting specific academic or social skills.
• Comprehensive School-Wide Programs: These programs promote the psychosocial and academic skills of all students. Too often, remedial and special education services are poorly integrated with the regular education program, and, therefore, collaboration and consistency between regular, remedial, and special education are essential.
Other alternatives include mixed-age groupings and multiyear programs where students may stay with the same teacher for more than one year, thereby giving children more time before they must demonstrate “readiness” for a subsequent classroom.
Neither grade retention nor social promotion is an effective remedy to address the needs of children experiencing academic, emotional, or behavioral difficulties. Parents, teachers, and other professionals committed to helping all children achieve academic success and reach their full potential 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. Parents and teachers are encouraged to actively collaborate with each other and other educational professionals to develop and implement effective alternatives to retention and social promotion. Identifying school problems early can help students to develop skills before children begin to feel like failures and improves students’ chances for success. Incorporating evidence-based interventions and instructional strategies into school policies and practices will enhance academic and adjustment outcomes for all students. See also Parents and Parent Involvement.
Further Readings: Algozzine, B., J. E. Ysseldyke, and J. Elliot (2002). Strategies and tactics for effective instruction. Longmont, CO: Sopris West; Jimerson, S.R. (1999). On the failure of failure: Examining the association of early grade retention and late adolescent education and employment outcomes. Journal of School Psychology 37(3), 243-272; Jimerson, S.R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review 30(3), 420-437; Jimerson, S.R., G. Anderson, and A. Whipple (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(4), 441457; Jimerson, S.R., and A. M. Kaufman (2003). Reading, writing, and retention: A primer on grade retention research. The Reading Teacher 56(8), 622-635; McCoy, A. R., and A. J. Reynolds (1999). Grade retention and school performance: An extended investigation. Journal of School Psychology 37(3), 273-298; Shinn, M. R., H. M. Walker, and G. Stoner eds. (2002). Interventions for academic and behavior problems II: Preventive and remedial approaches. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Shane R. Jimerson, Kelly Graydon, and Sarah Pletcher