Grade retention, also recognized as “being retained,” “being held back,” “nonpromotion,” and “flunking,” refers to the practice of requiring a student who has attended a given grade level for a full school year to remain at that same grade level in the subsequent school year. The practice of grade retention has become increasingly popular over the past few decades and particularly amidst the current sociopolitical zeitgeist emphasizing educational standards and accountability. In contrast to the abundance of research during the past century suggesting that grade retention is an ineffective and discriminatory policy, grade retention rates have increased during the past 30 years.
Current estimates indicate that between 7% and 9% of children in the United States are retained annually, resulting in more than 2.4 million children every year. Considering the research investigating the effectiveness of grade retention as an intervention to address academic, social-emotional, and behavioral problems, the increasing use and expense in the United States has led to numerous debates. Research provides essential information regarding (1) individual, family, and demographic characteristics of retained students; (2) the effectiveness of grade retention in addressing academic, social-emotional, and behavioral problems; (3) long-term outcomes associated with grade retention; and (4) the perceived stressfulness of grade retention from students’ perspectives.
Characteristics Of Retained Students
Research has examined gender and ethnic characteristics of retained students, revealing that boys are twice as likely to repeat a grade as girls and that retention rates are higher for minority students, particularly African American and Latino children. Retained students generally have lower achievement scores relative to the average student in a classroom; however, it is important to consider other characteristics of retained students because low achievement in isolation is not a distinguishing characteristic among retained and promoted students. Compared with equally low achieving and promoted peers, research reveals that retained students do not consistently have lower IQ scores. However, children who are retained are more likely to have mothers with lower IQ scores than a matched group of promoted children. Moreover, parents’ involvement in school and attitude toward their child’s education also play a significant role in determining whether a student will be retained.
Those students who are retained are often reported as being significantly less confident, less self-assured, less engaging, and more “immature,” and as exhibiting more behavior problems compared with their similarly low achieving, but promoted, peers. Teachers have also reported that the retained students are less popular and less socially competent than their peers. Thus, available research indicates that retained students are a diverse group of children with an assortment of challenges that influence low achievement, behavior problems, and poor classroom adjustment.
Effectiveness Of Grade Retention
Comprehensive reviews and examinations of grade retention research published between 1925 and 1999 have provided a synopsis of the findings of this research. These comprehensive reviews inform researchers and practitioners alike of the overall, cumulative results of these grade retention studies. Examinations of these studies that result in a negative number indicate that an intervention (grade retention in this case) had a negative or harmful effect relative to the comparison groups of promoted students. The larger the negative number, the more harmful the intervention. These comprehensive reviews examining the effectiveness of grade retention have included academic achievement, behavior problems, and social adjustment.
Effects on Academic Achievement
Overall, research does not demonstrate academic advantages for retained students relative to comparison groups of low achieving promoted peers. One comprehensive review of 63 grade retention studies revealed that 54 yielded negative numbers with respect to the effect that grade retention had on achievement for retained students. Of 9 studies revealing positive short-term achievement effects (during the repeated grade the following year), the short-term benefits diminished over time and disappeared in later grades. The overall negative effects on achievement outcomes found in this comprehensive review was −.44. This number indicates that grade retention was not found to be a beneficial intervention, overall, in the studies examined.
The most recent comprehensive review of 20 studies, published between 1990 and 1999, revealed that only 5% of 169 analyses of academic achievement outcomes resulted in significant statistical differences that favored the retained students, whereas 47% resulted in significant statistical differences favoring the comparison groups of low achieving peers. Of the analyses that did favor the retained students, two thirds reflected differences during the repeated year (e.g., second year in kindergarten). Moreover, these initial gains were not maintained over time.
Analyses examining the effects of retention on language arts, reading, and math yielded moderate to strong negative effects (−.36, −.54, −.49, respectively). Notably, decisions regarding grade retention are often based on reading skills; however, research reveals that grade retention appears to be an ineffective intervention to improve reading skills. Thus, grade retention appears be contraindicated for children with reading problems.
These findings indicate that across published studies, low achieving but promoted students outperformed retained students in language arts, reading, and math. Altogether, the results of comprehensive reviews examining more than 80 studies during the past 75 years, including nearly 700 analyses of achievement, do not support the use of grade retention as an early intervention to enhance academic achievement.
Effects on Social Adjustment and Behavior
Relatively fewer studies have addressed the social adjustment and behavioral outcomes of retained students. The results of these studies indicate that grade retention fails to improve problem behaviors and can have harmful effects on social-emotional and behavioral adjustment as well. A comprehensive review that examined more than 40 studies, including 234 analyses of social-emotional outcomes, concluded that, on average, the retained students displayed poorer social adjustment, more negative attitudes toward school, less frequent attendance, and more problem behaviors in comparison to groups of matched controls. Another comprehensive review examining 16 studies generated 148 analyses of social-emotional adjustment outcomes of retained students in comparison to a group of low achieving but promoted students. Based on this comprehensive review, retention was found to have an overall moderately negative average effect on the social adjustment and behavior outcomes of retained students. Related research reveals that retained students may be teased or have difficulties with their peers. Overall, results of comprehensive reviews of more than 300 analyses of social-emotional and behavioral adjustment (from more than 50 studies during the past 75 years) do not support the use of grade retention as an early intervention to enhance social-emotional and behavioral adjustment.
Long-Term Outcomes Associated With Grade Retention
There is a considerable amount of literature examining high school dropout that identifies grade retention as an early predictor variable. Grade retention has been identified as the single most powerful predictor of dropping out, even when controlling for other characteristics associated with dropping out. A comprehensive review of 17 studies that examined factors associated with dropping out of high school before graduation supports the findings that grade retention is one of the most robust predictors of school dropout. All studies of school dropout that included grade retention found that it was associated with subsequent school withdrawal. Several of these studies included statistical methods that controlled for many individual and family level variables commonly associated with dropping out (i.e., social-emotional adjustment, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, achievement, gender, parental level of education, and parental involvement). Research indicates that retained students are between 2 and 11 times more likely to drop out during high school than nonretained comparison groups of students and that grade retention increases the risk for dropping out between 20% and 50%.
In addition to increasing the likelihood of dropping out of high school, grade retention is associated with other long-term negative outcomes. The results of longitudinal research provide evidence that retained students have a greater probability of poorer educational and employment outcomes during late adolescence relative to a comparison group of low achieving but promoted students. Specifically, retained students are reported to have lower levels of academic adjustment at the end of 11th grade, are more likely to drop out of high school by age 19, and are less likely to receive a diploma by age 20. They were also less likely to be enrolled in a postsecondary education program, received lower education and employment status ratings, and were paid less per hour.
Students’ Perspectives On Grade Retention
It is also important to consider children’s perspectives regarding grade retention. In a study published in 1987, students in first, third, and sixth grade were asked to rate 20 stressful life events that included such occurrences as losing a parent, going to the dentist, and getting a bad report card. The results indicated that sixth grade students reported only the loss of a parent and going blind as more stressful than grade retention. This study was replicated in 2001, and it was found that sixth grade students rated grade retention as the single most stressful life event, higher than both the loss of a parent and going blind. A developmental trend was noted in both studies, with the reported stress of grade retention increasing from first, to third, to sixth grade. Thus, research indicates that children perceive grade retention as extremely stressful.
Cumulative evidence converging from research during the past century examining the effectiveness of grade retention consistently indicates the potential for negative outcomes. Considering this cumulative research evidence, it is important to consider evidence-based alternatives to promote the social and cognitive competence of children at risk for academic failure.
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