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.