Retention in school

Retention In School 2253
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The term "retention" in regards to school means repeating an academic year of school. Retention in school is also called grade retention, being held back, or repeating a grade. Grade retention is the opposite of social promotion, in which children continue with their age peers regardless of academic performance.


According to the National Association of School Psychologists, in 2003 as many as 15 percent or more than 2.4 million American students are held back and repeat a grade each year. Other studies have found that between 30 percent and 50 percent of all students are retained at least once by the time they are freshmen in high school (about age 14). In most cases, teachers recommend retention for one of three reasons: developmental immaturity that has resulted in learning difficulties; emotional immaturity that has resulted in severely disruptive behavior; or failure to pass standardized proficiency or achievement tests at the end of specific years. Another less common reason for retention is poor attendance due either to truancy or medical absences. Grade retention has become increasingly controversial as early 2000s education initiatives such as No Child Left Behind have pressed schools to meet certain standards defined by scores on standardized tests.

Students at highest risk of being retained share certain characteristics:

  • They tend to be boys.
  • They tend to be African American or Hispanic.
  • They are young or immature for their grade.
  • They show developmental delays.
  • They show attention, behavioral, or emotional problems.
  • They are not proficient in English (English language learners).
  • They have problems reading.
  • They have changed schools often.
  • They live in families with incomes below the poverty level.
  • They live in single-parent families.
  • They live with adults who are uninvolved in their education.


Sometimes preschool teachers will recommend that a child attend an extra year of preschool before enrolling in kindergarten. This practice is more common in suburban school districts than in urban ones. The theory behind this practice is to allow children, especially those who would be young compared to their peers in kindergarten (birthdays falling near the cutoff date for school entry), to gain maturity and a greater likelihood of success in kindergarten. One 1984 study found that more than 11 percent of six year olds were enrolled in kindergarten or pre-first classes rather than in first grade.

In some athletically competitive families, children are held back and start school one year later because parents believe this will give them an edge in high school sports that require strength and size. Studies have found that as a group students who begin kindergarten a year late do no better or worse academically than their younger classmates.

Elementary school

Retention is most likely to be recommended by teachers in grades one through three. The most common reason for retention is poor reading skills. As a group, students who are retained in these grades show initial improvement in academics. However, this improvement disappears after two to three years, after which retained students do no better or even slightly worse than similarly achieving students who were promoted. Studies also show that most elementary school teachers overestimate the academic benefits of retention. It has been suggested that this occurs because lower grade teachers see only the initial gains made by the student in the first few years after retention but do not follow the student's progress through middle and high school.

Retention in early elementary school does not appear to have an immediate effect on self-esteem or adjustment to school. However, by junior and senior high school, retained students tend to have more behavior problems, more difficulties with peer relationships, lower self-esteem, and poorer attendance.

Middle school

Retention can be emotionally traumatic for middle school students. A 1990 study found that being held back a grade was the third most stressful life event for sixth grade students topped only by the death of a parent or going blind. When this study was repeated in 2001, sixth grade students ranked flunking a grade as first in stress among these three events.

Middle school students who have been retained have more negative behaviors than their peers in academic ability who were not retained. These behaviors include smoking cigarettes, alcohol use, early sexual activity, and aggressive or violent behaviors. The retained group also had worse academic performance than similar students who were not retained.

In some school districts red shirting of student athletes is tacitly endorsed. This practice occurs when students are retained to improve performance in a nonacademic area, namely sports. Regardless of academic performance, a student is retained, usually in junior high school, to increase his or her likelihood of winning a college athletic scholarship. In addition, retention of strong athletes allows the school to build teams of older, bigger athletes. In these cases, retention is usually carried out with the knowledge and support of the student and his family and is not likely to carry a social stigma, as would be the case if the retention were for academic reasons.

High school

Grade retention is an excellent predictor of who will drop out of high school. Studies spanning several decades suggest that being retained one grade increases the risk of dropping out by 40 to 50 percent. Being retained twice or more almost guarantees the student will drop out. High school students who have been retained, even in earlier years, have the same unhealthful behaviors as retained middle-school students as well as more incidents of driving while using alcohol, marijuana use, suicidal behaviors, and high-risk sexual behavior. Individuals who have repeated a grade are more likely as adults to be unemployed, live on welfare, or be in prison than adults who did not repeat a grade.

Alternatives to retention

Given research finding that retention does not help learning difficulties, the question remains regarding what to do with a child who is, for whatever reason, unprepared to move to the next grade. Schools feel pressure to adhere to academic standards, while at the same time being fully aware of studies that show retention is counter-productive. However, the social promotion policies common in the 1970s, where students were kept with their age peers regardless of readiness for the next grade, does not produce academic success for at-risk students either.

Strong evidence indicates that at-risk students need remedial intervention, not simply more time or the repetition of material that retention provides. Potential remediations that can serve as alternatives to retention include:

  • mixed-age classes where students advance at their own rate without grade-level labeling
  • individual instruction and/or tutoring
  • smaller classes for students who are struggling academically
  • intensive early reading programs in lower grades for students who fail to achieve reading fluency
  • early evaluation for learning disorders/deficits and emotional disorders followed by appropriate modifications in instruction
  • extended day and summer school programs
  • transfer to an alternative school
  • programs to educate and involve parents in their child's academic program

Common problems

It is difficult to separate the effects of retention and the influence of other socioeconomic and family factors that affect children. Research suggests that social promotion and grade retention are not educationally effective policies. As of 2004, some people in the educational field believed that better educational gains may be made by linking the community organizations that deliver social services (health, mental health, family support services) with the school system in order to serve the child and family as a unit.

Parental concerns

Research evaluates outcomes for groups, not individual students. Parents may have valid reasons for believing that their child may benefit or suffer from retention. Most experts support the idea that parents should be involved in the decision to promote or retain their child and should make their concerns known to the teacher and school. Parents need to understand their school district's policy on retention and request evidence supporting a retention decision, including details of their child's academic performance, standardized test results, or other pertinent factors, such as the student's emotional maturity and behavior in class. Parents also need to advocate for early evaluation of learning disabilities if their child is falling behind.


Social promotion —Passing a child on to the next grade regardless of readiness in order for the child to remain with his or her age peers.



Alexander, Karl L., et al. On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary School Grades. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

McKay, Elizabeth, ed. Moving Beyond Retention and Social Promotion. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa International, 2001.


National Association of School Psychologists. 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814. Web site:


"Position Paper on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion." National Association of School Psychologists , April 12, 2003. Available online at (accessed December 11, 2004).

Robertson, Anne. "Retention in School." People with Attention and Developmental Disabilities Association (PADDA) News. Available online at (accessed December 11, 2004).

Tish Davidson, A.M.

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