Student Achievement

What Does Research Say About Grade Retention? A Few Key Studies to Know

By Sarah Schwartz — November 02, 2022 4 min read
Young boy reading book at a desk with his head in his hands.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Holding students back is a controversial policy decision. Opponents argue that it further disadvantages students and falls disproportionately on those who are already marginalized; advocates claim it can trigger the interventions and support that students urgently need.

Many states have legislation that requires schools to consider grade retention in one specific instance: if students don’t pass a 3rd grade reading exam. Most states paused these policies during the early months of the pandemic, but they’ve since restarted. And a few states have considered passing them along with new laws designed to mandate evidence-based reading instruction.

Last month, Education Week spoke with researchers and advocates about what these developments could mean for students and schools. But what does the evidence actually show? Does holding students back help or hurt them in the long run?

Here’s a look at several key research studies on retention—and takeaways for educators.

Retention disproportionately affects students of color

Overall, retention has decreased in the past decades. From 2000 to 2016, the percentage of students held back in a grade decreased from 3.1 to 1.9 percent. Still, there are disparities between student groups.

As of 2016, 2.6 percent of Black K-8 students were retained, compared to 1.5 percent of white students and Hispanic students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In some cases, the consequences of retention affect students of color more than their white peers, too. One recent study found that being held back in elementary grades increases the odds of dropping out of high school, and that these effects were strongest for Black and Latino girls.

Does retaining students lead to better outcomes?

One of the most-cited research papers on grade retention is a 2001 meta-analysis from Shane Jimerson, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Jimerson looked at 20 studies published between 1990 and 1999, and concluded that they “fail to demonstrate that grade retention provides greater benefits to students with academic or adjustment difficulties than does promotion to the next grade.” In many studies, students who were retained had worse academic achievement and social-emotional outcomes than students who were not.

Another research review from Jimerson and his colleagues, this one published in 2002, found that grade retention was also linked strongly to dropping out of high school.

More recent research concludes that studies that used more tightly controlled methodology—such as more closely matched comparison groups for retained students and higher-quality statistical controls—show fewer negative consequences of retention.

Researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of North Texas evaluated 22 studies published between 1990 and 2007 in a 2009 meta-analysis. They found that it mattered how similar retained students were to the control group of students who weren’t retained. When studies controlled for these differences, the negative effects of retention on achievement disappeared.

Still, the authors wrote, “these results provide little support for proponents of grade retention.” These stronger studies didn’t show negative effects, but they didn’t show positive results either. They had a very small effect size, which the researchers wrote was “not practically or statistically significantly different from 0.”

A few recent studies suggest that, under certain conditions, retention could help

Both of these newer studies are from Florida, which has had a 3rd grade retention policy in place since 2003. Students who don’t pass a 3rd grade reading exam can be retained—and if they are, the state requires schools to develop reading support plans for them, and to place those students with an effective teacher.

A 2017 analysis of student outcomes under this system found that kids who were retained had big initial gains in achievement. But within five years, the score increases faded out, and these students weren’t doing any better than their same-age peers.

Still, the researchers found that students who were retained had higher grade point averages and took fewer remedial courses in high school than students who had similar reading abilities but weren’t held back.

Another study found that English learners, specifically, also benefited from retention under the policy. Students who were held back learned English faster and took more advanced classes in later grades than their peers who also struggled but moved to 4th grade.

When this study came out in 2019, it was intensely scrutinized by the English learner research community. Many of those researchers argued that the study’s findings didn’t provide enough evidence to determine that retention was a good strategy for ELs writ large.

The key reason the Florida policy seems to have helped, some researchers and advocates theorize, is that it provided students with lots of extra support—like time for reading intervention and access to effective teachers.

Despite such findings, advocacy organizations have suggested that there are other, better ways to help students catch up while still promoting them to the next grade along with their peers.

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
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
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

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 In Their Own Words Students in Military Schools Lead the Nation on NAEP Scores. One Teacher Explains Why
Reading and math scores for Department of Defense students ranged from 15 to 23 points higher than corresponding national average scores.
4 min read
Black mother, dressed in military attire, writing with her son
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Achievement Q&A The 3 Teachers on the NAEP Panel Say It’s Time to Act on Drops in Scores
The results caught the public's attention—but the teachers say that hasn't yet translated into direct action to support schools.
9 min read
Illustration of a warning symbol.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty
Student Achievement The Pace of Learning Recovery Is Inequitable, New Data Show
Lower-scoring students are making gains at a slower rate than their higher-scoring peers.
2 min read
Photograph of a young person working on school work.
iStock/Getty
Student Achievement Spotlight Spotlight on High-Impact Tutoring
This Spotlight will help you evaluate how tutoring can help with learning recovery, connect students with tutoring services, and more.