Grade Retention: Good or Bad?

A Review of the Literature

Kelley Stapleton and Rebecca A. Robles-Piña

Sam Houston State University


School counselors need to be informed about retention as they will be part of the decision making team that makes decisions regarding student retention and have to provide social and emotional support to students while complying with federal standards, such as NCLB. The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on retention to determine the affects of (a) retention and dropping out of school, (b) grade retention and socioemotional problems, (c) and grade retention and academic achievement. The literature review indicated that retention: (a) is a major predictor for dropping out of school, (b) has a negative impact on socioemotional issues, and (c) actually lowers academic achievement.

          Grade Retention: Good or Bad?

A Review of the Literature

Due to teacher and school accountability, retention has become an increasingly larger problem in Texas, as well as the rest of the United States. Research shows that nearly three million students are retained in the U.S. each year (Jimerson, Pletcher, Graydon, Britton, Nickerson, & Kundert, 2006). The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (U.S. Department of Education [ED], 2008) reports 10% of students, in grades kindergarten through twelfth, had previously experienced retention. Additionally, ethnic minorities are affected even more with retention rates of 17% for African Americans and 11% for Hispanics. Further, males are more likely than females to be retained (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). In Texas, 208,876 students (5%) were retained in 2005-2006 from Kindergarten to grade 12 (Lee & Roska, 2007).

The definition of retention means being held back in a previous grade. Students who do not meet the basic requirements prescribed by the state assessments, such as on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), are held back in the grade they just finished the previous year. The students must repeat the same material they just covered the year before. Teachers and students may refer to retention as flunking, failing, or repeating a grade. Researchers also refer to retention as “non-promotion, the gift of time”, or being held back (Jimerson, Woehr, & Kaufman, 2004). 

Historically, retention was first investigated before 1930, but the first critical review of the studies was by Jackson in 1975. Unfortunately, Jackson pointed out that most of the research conducted prior to his review was limited and lacked significant results; however, he concluded that retention was not beneficial to students whereas promotion would be more beneficial. This literature review will discuss the recent research that supports Jackson’s original assertion (e.g., Jimerson et al., 2006; Holmes, 1989; Roderick, 1994; Rumberger, 1995; Shepard & Smith, 1990).

Research shows the U.S. is lagging far behind other countries when it comes to education and primary grade retention (Holmes, 2006). Unfortunately, Holmes shows the U.S. elementary retention rates of about 15% are comparable to underdeveloped countries such as Congo, Togo, and Chad with retention rates as high as 53%. Conversely, Norway, Japan, and Sweden have 0% retention rates (Holmes). However, personal communication with an educator in Sweden indicated that students do not receive grades until grade 8, thus, the report 0% retention rate is misleading since equal groups are not being compared (I. Sturen, personal communication, July 18, 2008). We are not aware of retention policies in the other countries stated. Teachers may argue that what is best for the child is retention, but others such as S. R. Jimerson will argue that retention is “educational malpractice” and that research does not support retention (personal communication, June 17, 2008).

 Contrary to retention, social promotion is when a low achieving student is allowed to pass onto the next grade level despite scores and performance. Typically, a campus’ Grade Placement Committee (GPC) meets to determine placement for the following year for particular students who do not meet the state mandated requirements. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (ED, 2004) basically puts a stop to social promotion by stating that all children will meet state requirements in order to move on to the next grade. Thus, NCLB renders social promotion more of an obsolete term. Consequently, the act encourages educational administrators to retain low-achieving students who do not meet the prerequisites to go onto the next grade.

NCLB sounds great on paper, and it would probably work efficiently if student achievement was based on national content rather than on independent high-stakes test developed by individual states. The act focuses on closing the achievement gap between all students with higher standards and expectations on one standardized test. As a result, students are required to meet the basic requirements that force retention or social promotion according to NCLB based on one exam. Retention is the primary choice unless a GPC decides otherwise. Thus, a decision between retention and social promotion becomes the issue. 

Although some believe that NCLB was developed with good intentions, such as an increased commitment to at-risk students, improved school programs, and more determined administrators in providing assistance to the teachers and counselors (Dollarhide & Lemberger, 2006), there are, however some problems. One problem is that it forces the administrators’ hand in retention. Consequently, students with social and emotional problems could possibly end up with lower academic achievement and therefore dropping out of school. Another problem is that the majority of students left behind by NCLB are at-risk students who some teachers perceive as unteachable (Collins, 2008). What some educators need to understand is that there should be other options other than retention. For example, NCLB requires that all schools use “scientifically based” interventions for lower achieving students (U.S. Department of Education, 2008).  Raising performance standards and closing the gap encourages many schools to take a look at the imposed interventions and begin revising them.

Overall, the purpose of this study is to examine the literature that investigates the effects of retention on secondary students in grades 7-12. The review will analyze the following: (a) the effects of retention on dropout rates, (b) the effects of retention on socioemotional outcomes, and (c) the effects of retention on academic achievement. The evidence presented concerns those students that do not meet the standards set by NCLB and are retained or socially promoted based on GPC decisions. The review will end with a discussion of interventions for classroom teachers, such as Texas’ response to this need for intervention with the Accelerated Reading and Math Instruction groups (ARI/AMI) and suggestions for future research.

Theoretical Framework

            The literature review was conducted to determine the effects of grade retention on dropout rates. The review will be used to determine the impact of grade retention on a student’s academic performance and socioemotional state of mind. Therefore, a study was conducted on behavioral analyses.

The frustration self-esteem model identifies problem behaviors and unsuccessful academics as reasons why students drop out of high school (Finn, 1989). The model indicated that students who are unsuccessful in school develop lower self-esteem which causes unhappiness and discord with the school experience. Students may also be affected by problem behaviors. Therefore, these students are more likely to drop out of school than the more successful students. 

            The participation-identification model combined the amount of participation students exert in class and school with how they identify themselves with school and instruction (Finn, 1989). The identification process dealt with the students’ successful outcomes based on the quality of instruction they receive and their personal ability. Participation could be done by participating in classroom discussions or extracurricular activities. Finn found that students with unsuccessful outcomes and low identification with school normally do not participate in extracurricular activities, thus the participation is low. Moreover, he indicated that these predictors may lead a student to dropping out of school. One such study that identified success and identification with dropping out was performed by the NCES (1988), in which students were asked for their reasons for dropping out of school. The survey resulted in 51.20% and 57.8% of girls and boys, respectively, said they dropped out of school because they did not like it.


Literature Search

            Retention and social promotion are topics that have been widely discussed in the professional literature. Many people seem to have a set opinion on whether or not retention is beneficial. By searching ERIC, PsychInfo, and Academic Search Complete with keywords grade retention, social promotion, academic achievement, and dropout rates, 120 articles were returned. A search for socioemotion* and grade retention brought up 5 articles, including Beyond Grade Retention and Social Promotion by Shane Jimerson. To aid the research, Jimerson responded to an email and added helpful information to the review. He included an article called A Longitudinal Study of Grade Retention: Academic and Behavioral Outcomes of Retained Students through Adolescence. Using the references cited in Jimerson’s research, another search for authors such as Rumberger, Roderick, Alexander, and Sameroff was conducted.


The Effects of Retention on Dropout Rates

A study by Melissa Roderick (1994) criticizes the use of retention by showing that it leads inevitably to dropping out of school. The U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (U.S. Department of Education, 2008) defines a dropout as a student who does not graduate from high school or complete a program such as the GED to meet the high school requirements. Students who leave the U.S. or transfer, leave due to illness, or move to another school or private schools are not considered dropouts. Roderick (1994) demonstrated the percentage of students who experienced retention once or more in grades kindergarten through eighth with the following information: 20.65% of students were retained once in kindergarten through eighth grade and 69.18% of those students dropped out of high school. The study also showed that the dropout rates for students who had never been retained were only 27.39%. This fact means that 27.39% of students who dropped out of high school, dropped out for reasons other than grade retention or social promotion. Students retained two or more times between kindergarten and eighth (15.84%) had an even higher dropout rate of 93.75%. Roderick (1994) and Rumberger (1995) believe grade retention is the number one predictor of middle school and high school dropouts. Equally important, it was found that 19% of retained students dropped out by 11th grade, whereas only 2% of students who were socially promoted dropped out of high school (Jimerson, Ferguson, Whipple, Anderson, & Dalton, 2002). Thus, Jimerson et al. demonstrated that social promotion was a better practice than grade retention.

Furthermore, prior to NCLB, research was conducted that demonstrated that students who were retained prior to ninth grade increased their chances of dropping out of high school by 40-50% (Roderick, 1994). Comparable to Roderick, another study concluded that students who were retained had a 20%-30% more likely chance of dropping out (Shepard & Smith, 1990). They found that even students from large affluent suburban areas had a 4% chance of dropout after grade repetition. The research presented has established that retention is a costly intervention for students in that dropping out becomes a prominent possibility. Interestingly, since NCLB, the retention rate of students has decreased from 11% in 1994 to 5% in 2004 for grades Kindergarten through five (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2006). Simultaneously, the dropout rate decreased from 34% in 1994 to 21% in 2004. In the middle school setting, the retention rates showed no measurable differences. In summary, while retention rates and dropout rates have decreased in elementary schools, the rates for middle and high schools remain high and according to the NCES (2006) is still relatively high and a United States crisis.

Not only are the numbers of dropouts high, but so is the financial cost attached to dropout rates (Jimerson et al., 2006). On average, a student who drops out of high school will make approximately $9,000 less per year than a student with a high school degree. In addition, the dropout student will make about $28,000 less per year than a student who receives a Bachelor’s degree (Deviney, 2007). Not only does this cost the student a great deal of money, but the state suffers as well. In 1986, dropouts cost the state of Texas $16.89 billion dollars, which is based on the cost of education per student as well as other factors such as incarceration and welfare costs. However, by looking at a 2006 attrition study, Deviney found that the cost rose to $730.1 billion for Texas. The study also found that 40% of high school dropouts are more likely to depend on government assistance, more likely to be unemployed, 8 times more likely to be incarcerated, and show a significant loss in tax revenue. It seems pointless to spend this much money on retention when there are so many remedial options available (Shepard & Smith, 1990). These options include, but are not limited to, summer school, before and after school tutoring, remedial classes before, during, and after school, and character development activities (Roderick, 1994; Jimerson & Ferguson, 2007).

Although some studies suggest that dropping out is directly related to grade retention and dropping out of high school negatively impacts the economy, these studies demonstrate a definite need for further research of the issues that affect retention and dropout rates in order to lower the cost individual students and the state of Texas incur from dropping out (e.g., Jimerson et al., 2002; Roderick, 1994; Holmes, 2006). With these studies in mind, teachers, school counselors,  and administrators need to understand the implications of retention and put student learning first.

The Effects of Socioemotional Outcomes

As grade retention is directly related to dropouts, it is highly associated with socioemotional difficulties in school and outside school (Jimerson et al., 2007; Roderick, 1994; Byrnes, 1989; Alexander, Entwisle, & Dauber, 1994). Socioemotional outcomes are based on a theory derived by Erikson that the social environment combined with biological maturation provides each individual with a set of “crises” that must be resolved (Huitt, 1997). After additionally reviewing NCES data, statistics showed that 5-7% of students in grades 6-8 had been retained (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). According to Erikson’s theory, middle school grades are when students begin to develop a sense of self. They begin to pick up on their own social and personal identity (Huitt). With that in mind, one has to reflect on the effects of retention from a developmental perspective. From one grade to the next, students are with the same peers unless they are retained which causes peer separation (Alexander et al, 1994). Separating a student from his or her peers will inevitably cause self-esteem issues. A child who is retained must feel terrified and unsure about themselves if he or she is told to stay back in a grade that was just completed as his or her friends move on to the next grade. For a child that is just realizing who they are, this could be extremely deleterious. The child may become the subject of hurtful jokes, bullying, and many other harmful effects. In summary, when grade retention is being considered as an option, socioemotional outcomes must be addressed as well.

 The review of the literature shows that there have been studies performed to demonstrate the lowered socioemotional outcomes of students. One study demonstrated that self-esteem and attitude toward school were significantly lower after retention as compared to promoted students by analyzing a group of 20 different studies (Holmes & Matthews, 1984).  Thereafter, Holmes (1989) increased his previous study to 63 studies. Consequently, he found that retained students typically showed a lower self-concept, poor attendance, and negative attitudes toward school.

Jimerson et al. (2006) conducted a subsequent meta-analysis to Holmes’ study that added 20 new groups to Holmes’ 63. The addition of the 20 new study groups increased the years reviewed ranging from 1929-1999. Of the 83 studies, 16 studies measured the predicted improvement of socioemotional behaviors by comparing 148 analyses of socioemotional outcomes of retained students and students who were low-achieving but socially promoted. Jimerson et al. found that 86% of the analyses demonstrated no significant difference between the retained students and the low-achieving but socially promoted students. Thus, the study established that retention is not a reliable intervention because it does not seem to improve socioemotional outcomes of retained students. In contrast to these findings, Reynolds (1992) found that Holmes’ research only provided minimal negative effects of retention on student attitudes. However, Jimerson and Ferguson (2006) contradict Reynolds’ statement by illustrating that in the short term, the effects show positive relations, but over time, they diminish, and self-esteem and poor socioemotional behaviors resurface. 

Further, another study examined socioemotional and behavioral characteristics, academic achievement, mother’s educational level, and mother’s value of education to determine the effect of retention on high school dropouts (Jimerson et al., 2002). This study indicated that family values and characteristics of retained students played a major role in dropping out. Because this research was consistent with other findings and studies on grade retention, socioemotional outcomes, and dropouts, the study showed validity and reliability. Jimerson et al. (2002) suggests necessary interventions to improve students’ socioemotional behavior need to take place early in a students’ life in order to prevent retention and the possibility of dropping out of middle school or high school.

Research suggests that retention can cause a variety of negative socioemotional outcomes. One study by Byrnes (1989) indicated that retention increases the level of stress secondary students feel. The results of this study, consisting of grade 6 students, equated retention with the loss of a parent or going blind (Byrnes, 1989). Of the students surveyed, 87% said retention depressed them (Byrnes). Accordingly, the study demonstrated that retaining children versus promotion including intense interventions and remediation does in fact impact their emotional state and feelings. Jimerson et al. found that teachers need to think about the socioemotional state of the children when they begin interventions for academics or behavior (Jimerson et al., 2006). They also studied the effect of the child’s home life and socioeconomics and how they affected the child’s attitude towards school and teachers. They discovered that retention is not the only event that will cause negative feelings in a child’s life; however, retention is a result of a child’s current and previous development at home and in school that causes a large portion of the emotional disturbances and negative feelings students display. Clearly, these studies demonstrate that retention is ineffective in solving early problems such as immaturity, learning disabilities, low self-concept, and maladaptive behavior. For that reason, students need involvement in activities that facilitate development and growth during the school year.

The Effects of Retention on Academic Achievement

Research demonstrates that in the long run, retention offers very little academic achievement, if any, in high school (e.g., Jimerson, 1999; Jimerson & Ferguson., 2007). The poor academic achievement of retained students is another result of the policy of retention. In a study conducted by Jimerson (1999) in which analyses compared the outcomes of retained students with a group of low-achieving but promoted students on achievement test scores, the findings indicated that there is a significant difference between the two groups. The retained students had lower achievement scores than the equally low but promoted group (Jimerson, 1999). Likewise, Jimerson et al. (2007) performed a study on retained students through adolescence. They compared four groups: transition classroom retained, recommended transition classroom but promoted, retained, and promoted. Through the analysis, Jimerson et al., found that the two retained groups had lower achievement levels than the promoted groups. He also noted that the aggression level was lower in the two promoted groups as compared to the retained groups. Finally, the study showed that students were 5-9 times more likely to drop out by eleventh grade due to retention.

Similarly, two other studies demonstrate the negative effect of retention on academic achievement. A study conducted by Holmes (1989) determined that when compared to promoted students, retained students show negative effects of academic achievement in the long-term. Moreover, in another study on academic achievement, only 14% of studies showed positive effects of retention (Westbury, 1994). Westbury conducted a study in a large metropolitan area in Canada. Her research consisted of two groups of students who were assessed in Grade 1, Grade 3, and Grade 6 with subject matter achievement tests. The research demonstrated short and long-term comparisons of randomly-selected students who had (a) repeated one grade prior to the assessment in grade 6 and (b) never experienced retention. The Grade 3 tests illustrated a significant difference in the achievement levels, favoring the continually promoted; nevertheless, analysis of the Grade 6 achievement test demonstrated no significant difference between retained students and continually promoted students. Westbury claims that extra schooling should result in higher academic achievement; however, the results demonstrated the opposite effect. Thus, retention was not beneficial to the academic achievement of those students.

As a result of this literature reviewed, research has demonstrated that out of seventeen studies, only one study looked at retention with a favorable response. The research presented fails to support retention as a proper academic intervention. Researchers termed retention as “noxious” and ineffective as long as thirty years ago (S.R. Jimerson, personal communication, June 17, 2008). Still today, retention is used frequently and has not improved with the formation of NCLB. It is important to understand the effects of retention on dropout rates, socioemotional behavior, and academic achievement. The student pays a high price for retention in relation to these aspects. Finally, administrators and teachers need to prepare students with stronger interventions that will enable them to advance without negative long-term effects.  Ironically, the No Child Left Behind Act (U.S. Department of Education [ED], 2004) has determined that no child should be left behind, yet, when students are retained, there is a possibility that they are left behind.   


            Retention is a widely discussed topic that school counselors, educators, and administrators need to understand. Before school counselors can fully determine the option of retention, they should develop an informed view of retention. Although it is easy to say retention should be done away with, one must also acknowledge that retention may be necessary at times. As a teacher, academic achievement is the main reason to retain a child. The child does not perform well on standardized tests or in the classroom, and then retention could be an intervention. This should be a step only after other “scientifically based” interventions have taken place and have proven to be unsuccessful (ED, 2004).  Although it is necessary at times, it should not be the first intervention used on any student. School counselors must assess attitudes toward the child and provide any and all necessary accommodations to prevent retention. Further, school counselors should provide as much support as possible, such as providing support staff to assist in the classroom with low-achieving students and counselor support for the students who may require emotional assistance.

Additionally, counselors may play a large role in a child’s capability to learn without retention because counselors have the ability to reshape a student’s attitude towards school and impact the child’s academic achievement (Dahir, Burnham, & Stone, 2009). Dahir and Stone present information on a counselor accountability program called Mission, Elements, Analyze, Stakeholders, Unite, Reanalyze, and Educate (M.E.A.S.U.R.E). M.E.A.S.U.R.E. was a seven-step process that school counselors used to find the data-driven impacts certain programs had on academic achievement. The accountability process helped counselors align state standards with the necessary programs needed to assist students. Dahir and Stone suggested that counselors work collaboratively with teachers and data in order to close the achievement gap of low performing students. The goal of M.E.A.S.U.R.E was to ensure that school counselors provided sustenance and appropriate rigor to every student in order to demonstrate the student’s ability and right to learn.

However, the NCLB Act of 2001 has led administrators into giving counselors administrative jobs rather than counseling (Dollarhide & Lamberger, 2006). They conducted a study on counselor perceptions of the NCLB Act of 2001 in which 210 school counselors responded to a public survey on the implications of NCLB on counseling programs. The survey consisted of three parts: (a) participants were asked about their knowledge of the NCLB legislation, (b) two open-ended questions were presented asking about the effects of the legislation and the counselor’s role in testing procedures, and (c) participants were asked their demographic information as well as details of the specific programs in their schools. Throughout the survey, the researchers found that the majority of counselors had problems with the legislation in that teachers were reluctant to release students for counseling due to higher stress caused by increased standards to pass a state test, counselors were “burdened by testing,” and finally, socioemotional needs were disregarded and not attributable to the increased standards enforced by the legislation. Counselors should use the information presented in this literature review to understand the dire need to assist teachers and administrators in developing programs to encourage and motivate children without the stress of accountability and the inconvenience of testing rather than counseling. The NCLB Act of 2001 advocates that all members in a school district should put forth effort to close the increasing achievement gap and aid children in learning. For counselors, NCLB should mean an understanding of the possible effects that failing a grade will have on a child and how a counselor should handle the sensitive situations in self-esteem and development that may occur (Walters & Borgers, 1995).

Research has shown that at times, students with high levels of immaturity, low self-concept and poor attendance are at a higher risk of retention, but extant methods of teaching children how to accept themselves and make smart choices with peers may help to prevent retention. An empirically supported program, PATHS, or Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (Jimerson & Ferguson, 2007) teaches children how to work together. The program is meant to boost children’s self-esteem by teaching them to work cooperatively and appreciate themselves. Hence, solving the issue of low self-esteem and negative attitudes may in turn advance the student’s academic levels because student behavior and self-image will not interfere with learning. Additionally, the child will produce better work and the possibility of retention may be lowered.

Furthermore, Tribes and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) provide character development necessary for student advancement. Jeanne Gibbs (2001) describes an Tribes as an excellent and integrative program that is designed to create a warm culture where students can work together cooperatively and experience success and appreciation. PBIS is another empirically supported character development program for all elementary and secondary students (Horner & Sugai, 2001). PBIS establishes high behavioral expectations for all students, acknowledges good behavior while handling poor behavior with consistency, and provides data for continuous analysis. The intervention also provides individualized intervention in areas where students struggle. Thus, these interventions support the notion that social promotion with remediation is only one suggestion to enhance lower-achieving students (Shepard & Smith, 1990).

In addition to the previous interventions, other extant options to improve academics include before and after school tutoring, early reading programs, parent involvement, multi-age classrooms, looping, small reading and math groups, lengthening the school day, and promoting peer assisted tutoring within the school (Bowman, 2005; Jimerson et al., 2006; Shepard & Smith, 1990). Furthermore, vocational skills assist in preparing students in learning to become self-sufficient and productive adults (Dedmund, 2008). With valid, necessary standards such as Career Connections and Career Investigation in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), students can begin career exploration and “take ownership of their futures” with significant expectations (Dedmund, 2008). The transition program also gives students information on the consequences of dropping out of high school, such as possible incarceration, welfare, and lower income.

In general, the research presented in this literature review implied that retention is not a proper initial intervention, and other interventions should be considered first before embarking on the path of retention. Teachers should have extensive training on interventions necessary for students who are at-risk for grade retention, and administrators should handle each retention situation with deep consideration. Counselors should have less responsibility in administrative functions and become more focused on assisting students with emotional needs. Counselors should only be an outlet and source of comfort for a student rather than a disciplinarian that a student may learn to resent rather than trust.

Although there is a large amount of literature on retention and its effects on dropouts, socioemotional outcomes, and academic achievement, there is very little information on the exact number of students retained who later dropout of high school. Researchers such as Jimerson et al. (2002) provide longitudinal studies on the effects of retention, but with mobility as an issue, the findings were smaller than they should be. It is necessary to begin a national database of students who were retained and dropped out in order to provide quantitative research that would improve the already available empirical research.



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