Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
Opinion
Student Achievement Opinion

Grade Retention Doesn’t Work

By Arthur J. Reynolds & Judy Temple — September 17, 1997 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

But despite the current vogue, educators, parents, policymakers, and taxpayers should feel apprehensive about increased reliance on retention as an instrument of reform. While we agree that proactive reform to improve educational performance is a good idea, grade retention at least as it’s typically implemented is not the answer.

Since the early 1970s, scores of studies have demonstrated that retention does not have positive effects for most low-achieving students. Recent studies, including our own analyses of Chicago data, indicate that grade retention does not improve students’ chances for educational success. In fact, they indicate that retention often is harmful to scholastic development, especially if it occurs early. There are three reasons why grade retention is an ineffective educational policy for most students.

First, the decision to retain is often made haphazardly and for nonacademic reasons. The fact that boys, minorities, low-income children, and children rated low in social adjustment are more likely to be retained, even after considering academic performance, suggests that some children may be singled out unfairly. Moreover, the use of arbitrary cut-off scores on standardized tests to determine retention status is not only restrictive but holds students alone responsible for what may in fact be caused by poor instruction or disruptive learning environments.

Second, retained children do not do better academically after they are made to repeat a grade. Our own ongoing longitudinal study of 1,539 Chicago schoolchildren who graduated from public kindergartens in 1986 indicates that children who are retained do not improve their academic performance relative to other students their age or the other students in their grade. In a study just completed, we found that over time the students fall further and further behind--by as much as eight months in achievement at the end of elementary school. Students who are retained because they are among the lowest-performing students in their original grades commonly are again found near the bottom of the test-score ladder when compared with their new same-grade peers.

The fact that boys, minorities, and low-income children are more likely to be retained suggests that some children may be singled out unfairly.

Finally, grade retention is an unwise policy because it has the unintended effect of contributing to the school dropout problem. The well-documented link between being retained in a grade and dropping out of school has received an insufficient amount of attention. Many students (including those who do well in school) find that 13 years of school is long enough. For retained students, though, the finish line is much farther down the road. In our research, grade retention greatly increased the likelihood of a student’s dropping out of school. In comparing students with similar academic profiles beginning in the early grades, we found that 30 percent of those in our sample who were retained had dropped out of school by age 17. Only 21 percent of students who were not retained had dropped out by this age. Thus, grade retention was associated with a 42 percent increase in early school departure. This relation between retention and dropping out also has been found in other studies. If a parallel negative side effect were found for a drug treatment or medical procedure, there would be an uproar of protest. Not in education.

We appreciate the fact that the threat of grade retention may serve as a “stick” in some cases for students to perform better and for teachers and administrators to offer better instruction. The threat of required participation in intensive annual summer school programs may be equally effective while offering students additional learning opportunities. Once students are retained, however, they usually get no special help with their schooling. They are often placed in low academic tracks only to repeat the previous year’s instruction and ultimately disengage from school.

Although evidence from 25 years of research shows that grade retention is ineffective, promoting low-achieving children without remediation isn’t the answer either. Alternatives to retention or social promotion include promotion plus tutoring, summer school, or increased parent involvement, as well as offering nongraded instructional programs. But preventing learning problems before they get started is the optimal and most cost-effective intervention strategy. And this requires a long-term commitment.

Alternatives to retention or social promotion include promotion plus tutoring, summer school, or increased parent involvement, as well as offering nongraded instructional programs.

One example of a successful alternative strategy is the Chicago public schools’ own Child Parent Center and Expansion Program, a 30-year-old comprehensive intervention effort from preschool to 3rd grade that emphasizes basic skills, parent involvement, and small class sizes. One of the great benefits of a child’s participation in this program, we have found, is that that he or she will be much less likely than nonparticipants to repeat a grade and to receive special education services, primarily because the program improves children’s school achievement and family involvement in learning. Expansion of such prevention programs to include as many children as possible will lessen the need for remedial programs and practices like grade retention. Successful programs like these deserve top funding priority.

In medicine, treatments shown to be ineffective or to have serious unintended consequences do not gain approval from government agencies and are discarded or revised. Retention as an educational treatment has not followed such established scientific traditions. Children with learning difficulties have the most to lose from such a practice. We urge educational professionals to implement programs and reform strategies that have proven effective.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1997 edition of Education Week as Grade Retention Doesn’t Work

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Achievement Opinion Traditional Grading May Not Be as Straightforward as It Seems
It can demotivate students, reflect inaccurate learning, and be biased against slower learners, argues an equitable grading advocate.
9 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Achievement Opinion Chronic Absenteeism Could Be the Biggest Problem Facing Schools Right Now
If we are serious about overcoming learning loss, chronic absenteeism should be our first priority.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Achievement Leader To Learn From An Unorthodox Plan to Pay Students to Write Curriculum Is Raising Achievement
For Kate Maxlow, the director of curriculum in Hampton City, Va., engaging students and improving academic achievement go hand in hand.
9 min read
Kate Maxlow works with Ava Gomez, 8, left and Khalid Baldwin, 8, right, on a “breakout room” activity in Jade Austin’s second grade classroom at Samuel P. Langley Elementary School in Hampton, Va., on January 12, 2024.
Kate Maxlow, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Hampton City Schools, works with Ava Gomez, 8, left and Khalid Baldwin, 8, right, on a “breakout room” activity in a 2nd grade classroom at Samuel P. Langley Elementary School in Hampton, Va.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Student Achievement Q&A Learning Recovery Efforts Worked. New Data Show Why States Must Not Let Up
Student learning recovered in record numbers, but improvements were uneven—and exacerbated some longstanding academic gaps.
8 min read
Vector illustration of 4 professionals looking through a large magnifying glass at charts and large upward arrows.
iStock/Getty