What is Retention?
Retention is the practice of requiring students to repeat or remain in a given grade level for an additional subsequent school year, or waiting to enroll students into kindergarten past the time when they are age-eligible (e.g., “repeating a grade,” “being held back,” ”flunking”). Many families and school teams retain students based on the belief that children will learn more academically or develop further social-emotionally by repeating a grade (Krier, 2012; Fait, 1982). Retention continues to be a controversial instructional decision that is considered, and debated, for students across all grade levels despite decades of research indicating negative outcomes for students.
Retention is proposed for many reasons, including difficulty keeping up with grade level academics, immaturity or late birthdays, missing a lot of school due to absences, and/or limited English skills. The most common reasons for student retention are academic failure due to reading problems in the primary grades and failure to earn course credit during the high school years (Smirk, 2001). Some teachers and administrators are in favor of the practice, thinking that it allows students time to develop necessary skills (House, 1989; Hong & Yu, 2008; Krier, 2012; Hanover, 2013).
What Does the Research Say About Retention?
The majority of studies from the past five decades indicate that the practice of retention as a remedial intervention has resulted in limited to no evidence of improving academic outcomes and life outcomes for students (Hattie, 2009; Jimerson, 2001). In fact, recent research indicates that retention has a negative effect size averaging -0.16 across 207 studies (Hattie, 2009). This means that not only did retention not improve outcomes, it actually made outcomes worse. From a student’s perspective, when rating the perceived trauma of stressful life events, sixth grade students rated grade retention as eliciting the same level of stress as losing a parent or going blind (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2002; Jimerson et al., 2005). Other negative outcomes of retention include school dropout, negative peer relationships, lower self-esteem, and increased engagement in high risk behaviors (e.g., cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, early sexual activity, and violent behaviors (Canter, Carey, & Dawson, 1998 Jimerson et al., 2005). In fact, retention is a significant predictor of school dropout because students are 5-11 times more likely to drop out of school when they are retained (Hanover 2013; Jimerson et al., 2001). Furthermore, many educators and families advocate for retention because the student is “immature.” No evidence exists to support this argument and in fact, many retained students experience high levels of mental health concerns as they get older (Canter, Carey, & Dawson, 1998), which suggests that retention did not support students’ social-emotional development in the long term.
A few studies have found positive effects of retention; however, initial positive effects tend to diminish over time (Hughes et al., 2010; Tingle et al., 2012; Wu et al., 2008) and do not outweigh the long-term negative repercussions of retention. These temporary benefits can be deceptive, as teachers do not usually follow student progress beyond a few years (Anderson, Whipple, & Jimerson, 2002).
When considering the above research, note that these reflect averages across groups of students rather than individuals. Although there are individual stories of success, there is no way to determine for which students retention will work. However, there is a substantial body of evidence that suggests the high likelihood that students will experience negative effects.
What are Alternatives to Retention?
The research is clear that retention has not been shown to be an effective practice in promoting student success (Jimerson, 2001); retention has had the opposite effect on students’ academic achievement and life outcomes. However, the use of social promotion, which often results in advancing students to the next grade level without additional support, is not a recommended practice. As a replacement to social promotion and retention, schools should consider “promotion plus” strategies. The philosophy behind promotion plus is to develop an intentional support plan that consists of evidence-based interventions and considerations of the student’s history and background to ensure school success (Jimerson et al., 2005). There are multiple factors that contribute to students’ struggles in school, therefore, support plans must also reflect the multi-factor dynamics of students’ struggles.
Promotion plus strategies are recommended to operate within a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework. An MTSS framework allows schools to proactively identify students at risk of low performance and provide a continuum of supports (i.e., Tier 1, 2, 3) to meet the needs of all students. Below are strategies school leaders should consider when implementing an effective MTSS framework:
- It is essential to establish comprehensive supports that develop not only academic skills, but also social-emotional competencies. In fact, an integrated model that weaves together academics and social-emotional learning has shown to have greater positive impacts on student outcomes compared to isolated systems or standard school practices (Cook et al., 2015).
- Implement early identification practices that consist of utilizing universal screeners, applying clear data-based decision-making rules, and employing effective teaming structures that facilitate early interventions. This will prevent problems before they become severe and avoid the need to retain individual students.
- Effective teaming requires teachers, administrators and support staff (e.g., school psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors) to work collaboratively. This also means partnering with families to understand a students’ needs from the family’s perspective and actively engaging families in the student’s school experience. Parents are vital partners, especially when students are receiving intervention supports.
- To support effective data-based decision-making, use assessments that are valid and reliable for its use (e.g., screening or progress monitoring), and for the student population of focus (e.g., high schoolers, English Learners). Moreover, students with severe needs who are receiving interventions should be progress monitored frequently and the data should be used to continuously inform the student’s instructional programming. See the National Center on Intensive Intervention for a list of valid and reliable assessments.
- To effectively promote positive student outcomes, Tier 1 or core instruction must deliver high quality evidence-based instruction, and target essential skills students need for success.
- In the area of reading, effective core instruction consists of the science of reading which includes systematic, explicit instruction in phonics and comprehension strategies (NRP & NICHD, 2000). In the area of math, this may include systematic, explicit instruction on properties of whole numbers and solving word problems (Gersten et al., 2009; NASP, 2020). In the area of social-emotional learning, this includes systematic, explicit instruction on mental health promotion (Splett et al., 2017).
- Effective communication between grade level teams and opportunities for teachers to work with colleagues from preceding and subsequent grades (e.g., vertical PLCs) would be essential to closing the gap for struggling students.
- Provide a positive school climate where students feel valued (NYASP, 2021). This may consist of integrating student voice (e.g., surveys) and promoting student agency (e.g., student advisory board) in school practices and policies. This may also include implementing culturally and linguistically responsive practices that are reflective of the student community.
- Students should have opportunities to learn outside of the school day or school year to continue supporting their growth. Schools may consider extending their school day or offering summer learning programs (Protheroe, 2007). Schools should also consider collaborating with community programs to provide enrichment, tutoring or mentoring opportunities. Most importantly, schools should collaborate and work closely with community agencies to ensure that students and families can easily access social services when in need (Jimerson et al., 2005).
What about Retaining Students with Disabilities?
If retention is considered for a special education student, the team should inform families about the research on the outcomes of retention at the Individual Education Program (IEP) meeting. As with all major decisions involving special education students, the decision to retain is made by that student’s IEP team and on a case-by-case basis. A discussion should occur at the meeting regarding alternative supports and interventions to meet the student’s needs. Teams must also evaluate the extent to which the student’s current IEP (including a behavior intervention plan, when relevant) has been implemented with fidelity. Often timed educators will recommend a delay to the entrance of kindergartners, a practice called redshirting. This decision can actually delay access to a wider range of services and access to daily support. Additionally, special education students are entitled to transition services until they reach the age of 21. If a student is retained, the student loses a year of these services. No matter the age of the student, the loss of that year of transition services should be explained to the family and considered at the IEP meeting. In the rare case that an IEP team decides to retain a student, the decision needs to be documented on the Prior Written Notice, including the potential effects that were shared with the family, other options considered, and why the team came to that decision.
What Information Should be Shared with Families?
The information outlined above can and should be summarized and shared with parents and caregivers who are considering retention. Given the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be efficient/effective to share this information with all families, as this is likely a topic on the minds of many. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has also produced this grade retention information sheet for parents, which can be shared when appropriate.
Additionally, remind families that they have many insights that will be informative and essential to their student’s individualized needs. They can help their student(s) avoid retention by:
- Advocating for their student’s needs, while also sharing and emphasizing their student’s strengths when talking to school staff
- Note: Remind families that they have access to advocacy supports through organizations such as PACER
- Providing a time and place within the home for the student to complete homework
- Collaborating with teachers and other school staff to develop interventions and supports to meet their student’s needs and identify opportunities to enhance learning across all school environments
- Frequently communicating with the school regarding concerns (e.g., academic, behavioral, social) as they arise
- Being informed of their student’s assignments and homework as well as providing monitoring and assistance to support work completion
- Assisting in their student’s overall health (e.g., sleeping habits, nutrition, school attendance, appropriate medical care; Jimerson, Pletcher, and Kerr, 2005).
Resources on Grade Retention
- National Association of School Psychologists Resources, Strategies and Research
- Center for Mental Health in Schools, UCLA Research Clearinghouse on Topic of Retention
- Five Factors to Consider When Parents Request Grade Retention for Their Child
- The New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP) School Re-Entry and Recovery in Response to the COVID-19 Health Crisis
Cook, C. R., Frye, M., Slemrod, T., Lyon, A. R., Renshaw, T. L., & Zhang, Y. (2015). An integrated approach to universal prevention: Independent and combined effects of PBIS and SEL on youths’ mental health. School Psychology Quarterly, 30, 166–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/spq0000102
Gersten, R., Beckmann, S., Clarke, B., Foegen, A., Marsh, L., Star, J. R., & Witzel, B. (2009). Assisting students struggling with mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for elementary and middle schools (NCEE 2009-4060). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ies. ed.gov/ncee/wwc/publications/practiceguides/.
Hanover-Research. (2013). Examining the impact of grade retention. Retrieved from http://gssaweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Examining-the-Impact-of-Grade-Retention-1.pdf
Hughes, J. N., Cao, Q., West, S. G., Allee Smith, P., & Cerda, C. (2017). Effect of retention in elementary grades on dropping out of school early. Journal of School Psychology, 65(June), 11–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2017.06.003
Jimerson, S. R., & Renshaw, T. L. (2012, September). Retention and Social Promotion. Principal Leadership, 12–16. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/principals/NASSP_Grade_Retention_Sept_2012.pdf
Jimerson, S. R. (2001). A synthesis of grade retention research: Looking backward and moving forward. The California School Psychologist, 6(1), 47-59.
Jimerson, S. R., Pletcher, S. M. W., & Kerr, M. (2005). Alternatives to grade retention. Principal Leadership, 5(6), 11-15.
Krier, J. (2012). Information Resource A Series of Information Resources on. Mental Health in Schools Program and Policy Analysis. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA
National Reading Panel (NRP) & National Institute of Child Health, & Human Development (NICHD). (2000). Report of the national reading panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/documents/report.pdf
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2020). Considerations for math intervention upon the return to school [handout]. Author. Retrieved from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/covid-19-resource-center/return-to-school/considerations-for-math-intervention-upon-the-return-to-school
New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP). (2021). School Re-Entry and Recovery in Response to the COVID-19 Health Crisis [Practice Document]. https://www.nyasp.org/resources/Covid-19-Practice-Document.pdf.
Protheroe, N. (2007). Alternatives to retention in grade. Principal, 86(3), 30-34. Retrieved from https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2007/J-Fp30.pdf
Splett, J. W., Perales, K., Halliday-Boykins, C. A., Gilchrest, C. E., Gibson, N., & Weist, M. D. (2017). Best practices for teaming and collaboration in the Interconnected Systems Framework. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 33, 347–368. https://doi.org/10.1080/15377903.2017.1328625
Tingle, L. R., Schoeneberger, J., & Algozzine, B. (2012). Does grade retention make a difference?. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 85(5), 179-185. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2012.679325
Kim Gibbons, PhD is the Director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of MN and the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Minnesota Comprehensive Center. Her most recent book is Effective Universal Instruction: An Action-Oriented approach to Improving Tier 1 (2018).
Katie Pekel, EdD, is the Principal in Residence at the University of Minnesota where she leads the Minnesota Principals Academy, the Executive PhD program; and the Urban Leadership Academy. Dr. Pekel has served at all levels of K-12 education including as a high school English teacher, an elementary principal and a middle school principal. Dr. Pekel recently has led two state-wide surveys regarding the impacts of the pandemic on K-12 education in Minnesota.
Laura Potter, PhD is a Research Associate at the Center for Applied Research and Eductaional Improvement where she engages in program evaluation and technical assistance work on a variety of projects, including Special Education and MTSS Audits and the Wisconsin Minnesota Comprehensive Center.
Ellina Xiong, PhD is a Research Associate at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement where she works on multiple projects the help bridge research to practice and bring professional development to school and system leaders. Ellina is a licensed school principal.