Education Commentary

Retention in Grade Is ‘Harmful’ to Students

By Jack Frymier — December 06, 1989 5 min read

For more than 100 years, many students who have not done well in school have been retained at grade level and required to repeat the year’s work. This practice is not only unproductive for young people, but also costly to society.

In their new book, Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention, the researchers Lorrie A. Shepard and Mary Lee Smith summarize recent studies about the effects and the extent of that strategy. Their findings are not appreciably different from those reported 50 years ago: Retention is harmful, not helpful.

Statistics on the number of students retained in grade each year in the United States are imprecise. Most states, and presumably most districts, do not collect data or maintain records about such matters.

Ms. Shepard and Ms. Smith cite data from the U.S. Census Bureau on the percentage of children enrolled in school between 1950 and 1984 who were below the modal grade. Current Population Report provides the same information for 1986. If we assume that those below modal grade had repeated a year, computations based on these data suggest that between 1.49 percent and 1.81 percent of students were retained in any given year during the period 1980 to 1986. The figures pertain only to children enrolled in school, of course; those who had already dropped out were not included in the calculations.

Examining the school records of more than 22,000 students in grades 4, 7, and 10, researchers in the Phi Delta Kappa “Study of Students at Risk” (reported in the October issue of Phi Delta Kappan) determined that 16 percent of these students were over the modal ag~ and that 14 percent had been retained in grade at least one time. Again, students who had dropped out were not taken into account in the study. These data suggest an average retention rate of just over 1 percent annually.

Ms. Shepard and Ms. Smith also report retention rates for 15 states for the 1979-80 and 1985-86 school years. While those states-most of them in the South-are not representative of the nation, their rates averaged 5.51 percent and 6.39 percent for the years indicated.

All things considered, a conservative estimate would put the number of students retained in grade in American schools each year at between 2 percent and 3 percent of the 40 million students enrolled. Those are small percentages, but they mean that approximately 1 million students are held back each year.

Having a child repeat a year costs, on average, about $4,500. And most children who are retained in grade do exactly that: They repeat the same experiences-the same curricular materials, the same sequence of activities-they had before.

The research about the effects of retention is clear: Compared with students who are promoted, those who are held back are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to get into trouble with the law; they learn less the following year; they develop more negative self-concepts.

Yet many teachers--45 percent to 65 percent--believe that retaining students is sound educational practice, and several states have passed laws requiring schools to hold back youngsters who do not demonstrate achievement at state-specified levels.

There are exceptions to these generalizations, of course. For example, research consistently indicates that while most students who are retained do less well in subsequent years than those who are promoted, a few do better. But those whose performance improves have generally been provided special help.

Why do students who are promoted typically learn more than those who are retained? The answer is probably simple: new experiences. Promotion means confronting new concepts, new subject matter, new teachers, and new opportunities. The availability or absence of such fresh experience would explain not only why promotion works but also why retention usually fails.

A rudimentary analysis of costs and benefits suggests the weakness of retaining students as an educational strategy.

What are the benefits to the individual students who are retained? Almost none-though many teachers and administrators, ignoring research findings and making decisions based only on personal experience, refuse to accept this fact. They observe that a child who is held back makes progress the next year-but they seldom follow that same youngster throughout his school career. And since they typically compare the retained student with the children in the grade he is repeating rather than with those who were advanced to the next level, the comparison always justifies the decision to retain.

Likewise, the rationale for retention commonly offered by teachers--sequencing subject matter and skills instruction by age and grade level, keeping students in homogeneous groups according to achievement, punishing children who do not learn--is seductive but fallacious.

What are the benefits to society? The satisfaction of those teachers and policymakers who think retention “works.” Otherwise, none.

What are the costs to individual students? Lowered levels of achievement and self-esteem, increased dependence on society for support, fewer years of schooling (with associated lower levels of income), and a sense of frustration and defeat. What are the costs to society? Lowered aspirations of about 1 million young people every year, reduced payments to the government in the form of taxes, increased costs for social welfare, law enforcement, and the penal system, and expenses of about $4.5 billion per year just to reteach students who have been held back.

Requiring taxpayers to spend billions for educational practices that are of dubious or negative value is hardly justified, especially when many of the costs are hidden.

Would it not be a better policy to promote children who are candidates for retention and use the money that would have been spent reteaching them in the following year to provide a different experience--one tailored to their needs?

Such strategies might include less testing and more explanation, less independent seatwork and more peer tutoring, and less homework and more in-class instruction. In addition, schools could offer these students fewer packaged programs and more personalized teaching, fewer directions and more support, and fewer textbooks but more and better curricular materials.

Until such a policy can be put in place, however, two steps should be taken to improve practice: States should collect data annually from school districts on the number of students held back, by building and by grade level, and schools should stop retaining students when doing so will only force children to repeat the same grade in the same way.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1989 edition of Education Week