The Synthesis of Grade Retention Research

If children are not keeping up, is it better to hold them back or move them ahead? For answers, the experience of first-, second-, and third-grade repeaters, and, as a group, children held back in grades four through seven were examined. Their academic progress and attitudes were monitored from the fall of first grade, before anyone had been held back, to the end of seventh grade (in the case of repeaters) or eighth grade (in the case of children never retained). Retention’s effects were assessed in a host of ways and, though the results were complex, it was concluded that repeaters in most instances were doing better in elementary school after retention than they had been doing before, and that these advances generally held up for a number of years (although in diminishing measure). In most of the comparisons, repeating a grade was associated with improved attitudes toward self and school. These findings contradicted the results of most similar contemporary studies. However, despite the benefits of retention on school achievement and self-esteem, retained students are more likely to drop out of school. In fact, repeating a grade in increases dropout risk, and later the risk of non completion, from three- to eight-fold.

Children held back in the upper grades and multiple repeaters are especially prone to leave school without degrees, but single repeaters are also at elevated risk. One study concluded that double repeaters and first-grade repeaters were helped least by repeating a grade, so for them to have elevated levels of dropping out and non completion is not surprising. But single repeaters who were held back in second grade also drop out in numbers greater than expected, and in at least one comparison so do third-grade repeaters. If repeating a grade in elementary school boosts children’s school performance and shores up their self-regard why would it later increase dropout risk? The fact that this risk is especially pronounced among repeaters held back in grades 4-7, as we find, is significant. When these children were held back, they were not as academically far behind their promoted classmates as were children held back earlier. If retention were simply a proxy for relevant academic difficulties, then repeating first or second grade, and not grades 4-7, would pose the greatest problems later, but that is not the case.

If not academics, then what? The social side of schooling seems a likely candidate. Grade retention takes children off the prescribed timetable of grade progressions in a rigidly age-graded system. This makes them conspicuous and complicates their social integration. Being “off-time” in school can cause problems at any age, but conditions peculiar to adolescence, the onset of puberty, and the impending transition to middle school very likely heightens them. The early adolescent years (typically age 12-14) are a time of heightened self-consciousness, when “fitting in” is paramount, but “fitting in” is not easy for late repeaters. The separation from their friends is still fresh when the time comes to change levels of school, and the disruption of peer groups they suffer is two-fold- their age-peers move on to middle school while they are left behind with younger classmates whom they may view as lower on the age/status hierarchy. Since repeating is less common in the upper elementary years than in first and second grade, there are relatively few age-peers available in late repeaters’ classes to help ease their adjustment. Repeaters’ academic standing began to slide when they moved from elementary to middle school. Reflecting transition shock, their marks and test scores began to trail off at that point, and although they usually remained ahead of where they originated, there was little room for them to absorb additional setbacks.

Thus, repeaters’ situation in middle school was precarious, and even greater challenges awaited them at the transition into ninth grade. Any school transition is hard, but the transition to high school is especially difficult. Relative to middle schools, high schools are larger, more bureaucratic, impersonal, and academically demanding. Under such circumstances, even high achieving, well-integrated students often experience difficulty. And what of repeaters? Their academic and social standing are low, which leaves them especially vulnerable. Consider this one “symptom”: in their ninth year of school, future dropouts averaged 45.9 absences compared with an average of 14.3 absences among non dropouts. With 47 recorded absences, these students were missing about one day out of every four, which was interpreted as a signal that the dropout process already had begun. The new evidence presented here showing that grade retention elevates dropout risk certainly reinforces the conviction that retaining children ought to be a last resort. But as before, it is still believed that repeating a year may be appropriate when extra time is needed to consolidate skills and master material missed the first time through. Still, for most children under most circumstances, traditional retention (i.e., grade repetition without supplemental services) ought to be rare. But candidates for retention typically are far behind academically and often exhibit serious behavior problems. Absent an effective intervention, many of these children are on a path that will lead to dropping out whether they are held back or not. Ignoring the problem (i.e., simply moving them ahead to the next grade level) and hoping for the best certainly is a formula for failure. Children who are far behind and struggling don’t suddenly spurt ahead, even though a spurt is what is required for them to catch up.

The first priority should be to keep children from reaching the point where they are retention candidates in the first place. Many poor and minority children start school already behind, but it is known that high-quality preschool programs can enhance school readiness. More of those programs are needed, and more disadvantaged children need to have access to them. Likewise, there is a need for high-quality, full-day kindergarten and supplemental services to help preserve the gains realized as a result of those early interventions. Children learn at different rates. Yet all are expected to be “ready” for first grade at age six; they are expected to move in lockstep annually thereafter from one grade to the next; and within the year, they are expected to master the curriculum in roughly the same time frame: nine months, fall to spring. The current calendar-driven model of schooling sets a severe pace; children who aren’t caught up when the teacher is obliged to move to the next lesson plan fall behind, and if they are far behind at year’s end, then what? Should these children be moved ahead knowing they’re not ready; or should they be held back knowing that most won’t be helped enough for them to keep up later? Either way, they are trapped in the same structure and many will simply slip farther back.

The challenge is to build more flexibility into the system without the stigma and other problems that come with being “off-time” for one’s age. Most school systems haven’t been especially imaginative in addressing the needs of overage students, and some of the more popular approaches risk making matters worse rather than better. So-called alternative schools for overage, pregnant, or parenting students often suffer an “image” problem and, with typically only one or two in the area, there may be logistical problems also. But beyond that, it is asking a great deal of someone shouldering heavy work or parenting responsibilities, as many repeaters do, to commit to the traditional school schedule, and even then, he or she still will be in the company of a student body preoccupied with the traditional concerns of adolescence-hardly a congenial fit. Current arrangements segregate and marginalize these youth. To break down these barriers requires somehow relaxing the overly tight link between “age” and “grade.” Doing so would likely improve the graduation prospects of children who are a year or two behind, and it certainly would give educators more options for addressing their needs. Under this accounting, the problem isn’t so much grade retention as it is the structure within which grade retention is embedded, a structure that makes deviants of otherwise perfectly normal children.