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Retaining children in grade.

Most teachers agree that young children vary considerably in academic performance and behavior. Educators are always searching for the most effective ways of helping children who lag behind academically or appear more immature than their peers. The different strategies used in the United States include failing children (employed heavily in the 19th century) and tracking and ability grouping (beginning in the early 20th century).

Responding to public and political pressure to improve the quality of education, many school districts adopted retention policies and practices over the past decade. Children are "held back" from progressing with their age mates in order to provide them with a "year to grow" or a year to improve their academic performance. Unfortunately, such decisions are made without consulting the available research on retention. Retention is costly--not only in terms of tax dollars, but also the children's well-being. The children being held back pay with a year of their lives and possible continued academic, social and emotional problems.

Even though the professional literature definitively states the harmful effects of retention, the practice continues to be widely used (Shepard and Smith, 1989). Policy and practice reform is likely to occur only if education professionals are knowledgeable about the widely documented results of retaining children in grade. Teachers must act on good information in order to make wise decisions, while keeping children's best interests in mind.


The number of children affected by retention is significant. Estimates place the annual retention rate in the United States at 7 to 9 percent (Coffield & Bloomers, 1956; Lehr, 1982; Shepard & Smith, 1989). Based on this rate, the cumulative retention rate for an age group entering school may be greater than 50 percent by grade 12 if the children stay in school until graduation (Shepard & Smith, 1989). In other words, at the end of the kindergarten year some of the children who enter are retained. At the end of 1st and 2nd grades, additional numbers from the original group are retained. By the time the group graduates from high school, over half have failed at least one grade.

After reviewing retention research, Nason (1991) reported that between one-fourth and one-third of all kindergarten children nationwide are retained. Similarly, Sheehan, Cryan, Wiechel and Bandy (1991) found that 16 percent of all children in a midwestern state had experienced at least one grade retention by the 4th grade. Retention appears to be a widely practiced strategy for dealing with children who differ academically or behaviorally from what is considered normal.

For state and local school districts, the cost of keeping children in the same grade for more than a year is very high. Jackson (1975) estimated the cost of retention in the 1971-72 school year to have been between 739-903 million dollars. Smith and Shepard (1987) suggested that one year of retention increased the education costs of an individual by 8 percent, assuming that the student graduates from high school. Natale (1991) also expressed concern about the high cost associated with failing children. In this day of education budget cuts, a costly practice such as retention should be examined to determine how effectively it addresses academic or developmental needs.

Much research has been conducted in the past decade to evaluate the results of retention policies that were reimplemented in response to the call for education reform and accountability. Areas of study include: effectiveness of retention, academic and socioemotional outcomes of retention, use of retention to create more homogeneous classrooms, relationship of retention to school drop-out rates and which children are more likely to be retained. From this work, a body of knowledge has accumulated that provides educators, parents, school administrators, school boards, legislators and the community with substantiated information for examining retention policies. The following provides a summary of these findings.

Evidence on the Effectiveness of Retention

The goal of most retention investigations has been to determine the effectiveness of retaining children. If effective, children who fail a grade should either recover their academic lag and/or exhibit a maturity level similar to other children in the class.

Recent literature in the field, however, presents conclusive evidence against retaining children. A meta-analysis by Holmes (1989) demonstrated the inefficacy of the practice. Analyzing 54 negative and 9 positive studies, Holmes concluded that retention had consistent negative effects on students. The greatest difference found was related to academic achievement: retained students scored about one-third standard deviation less than similar children who were promoted.

When examining two other variables of great concern to educators, self-concept and personal adjustment, Holmes found the promoted children to have the advantage. The evidence consistently supports the belief that, in general, children do not profit from being retained.

Holmes (1989) also examined the characteristics of children who participated in retention studies showing beneficial results. He found that the children were systematically more able than a traditional population; that is, all children, both retained and promoted, scored average or above average on standardized achievement measures. In addition, most of the positive studies were conducted in suburban settings and contained few, if any, minority students; socioeconomic levels represented lower middle to upper middle class. Also, potential failures were identified early and given intensive intervention in low teacher-student ratio classrooms during the retention year. These positive studies suggest that, in order for retention to be successful, additional intervention strategies are required. But we cannot conclude that this would be true for all groups of children.

A large number of other meta-analyses and syntheses of retention studies confirm the notion that children recommended for retention, but promoted anyway, do at least as well or better than similar children who are retained in order to improve their academic skills (Bossing & Brien, 1980; Byrnes & Yamamoto, 1985; Coffield & Bloomers, 1956; Goodlad, 1954; Holmes, 1983; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Koons, 1977; Labaree, 1984; Moran, 1989; Niklason, 1984; Smith & Shepard, 1989). According to Smith and Shepard (1989), only small achievement gains were demonstrated by the retained groups after a retention year (less than 8 percentile points). Therefore, if the goal of retention is to enhance academic achievement, implementation fails to realize this goal.

Retention and Academic Outcomes

Because a major reason given for retaining children in grade is to improve academic achievement (Holloman, 1990; Nason, 1991; Niklason, 1987), many studies focus on the academic outcomes of retention. In addition to the literature already mentioned, Niklason (1987) investigated 102 subjects (62 targeted for retention but promoted and 40 retained). Children were grouped according to a young group (grades K-1) or an older group (grades 2-6). Results on reading and arithmetic measures demonstrated that promoted students made more progress the following year than did those who had been retained.

Conversely, although infrequent in number, a few studies have found that retention improved the academic achievement of the retained groups (Ames, 1980; Lindvig, 1983; Owen & Koon, 1978; Scott & Ames, 1969). Scott and Ames (1969) reported that children retained due to immaturity, as measured by the Gesell School Readiness Test, experienced statistically significant improvement in academic performance as measured by grades. Twenty-seven children in grades K-6 who had been retained due to immaturity were subjects of the study.

Retention and Self-Concept

Educators are also concerned about the effect of nonpromotion on children's self-concept. Concern was voiced as early as 1909 that failing a grade would damage children's self-esteem and create socioemotional problems (Bocks, 1977; Holloman, 1990; House, 1989; Labaree, 1984; Nason, 1991; Natale, 1991; Shepard & Smith, 1989). A number of researchers have addressed this concern.

A few studies have reported positive outcomes. In one study (Pomplun, 1988), retained primary students' self-concepts appeared stable over a two-year period following retention, but intermediate and secondary students showed significant decreases in self-esteem. Finlayson (1977) found no difference in self-concept measures for promoted and nonpromoted elementary students.

Many studies, however, have found retention to have negative effects on students' self-esteem (Bocks, 1977; Bossing & Brien, 1980; Goodlad, 1954; Moran, 1989; Niklason, 1984). Byrnes (1989) interviewed 71 retained children in grades 1, 3 and 6. When asked if they knew anyone who had been retained, 27 percent did not include themselves in their answers. Of the girls, 43 percent did not include themselves. Eighty-four percent said they would feel upset, bad or sad if they were retained. Only 6 percent gave positive responses. Bracey (1986) reports that children ranked failing a grade only slightly less stressful than going blind or losing a parent to death. Analysis of the children's responses indicates that retained children perceive the experience as a punishment and a stigma.

Using Retention To Create More Homogeneous Classes

In addition to its use for maturational or academic remediation, retention has also been used as a means of creating more homogeneous classroom groupings. The idea is that if children are more similar to each other, they will be easier to teach. Goodlad (1954) wrote that, for most teachers, a class of children who are very similar to each other in all areas of development would approximate a teaching Utopia.

Over the years, American schools have used a number of methods to decrease the heterogeneity of students in the classroom. In addition to grade retention, tracking and ability grouping have also been employed. According to Smith and Shepard (1989), teachers attempt to decrease the diversity of levels in their classrooms. Research indicates, however, that retention actually increases the range of differences in students in a grade level by expanding the levels represented by another year (Bossing & Brien, 1980; Charlesworth, 1989; Doyle, 1989; Smith & Shepard, 1989).

Whether or not homogeneous grouping is desirable, retention does not reduce the range of differences within a class. Intellectual, socioemotional and physical development does not occur on a common continuum for individuals or for children in the same age group. Even if children were matched for achievement in one subject, they would greatly overlap in other subjects (Goodlad, 1954). Goodlad reported the results of one study that showed variability in achievement was no less for schools with high rates of retention than for schools with lower rates.

Moreover, Moran (1989) described the social problems that may result from creating groups of widely varying ages in the same grade--a necessary byproduct of retention:

Ultimately, retaining students creates a situation in which children who are progressing normally through the public schools are placed in classrooms with older, aggressive and possibly delinquent students. The situation would seem to be at its worst in grades 6, 7, and 8 when the normally progressing children regularly interact with more physically mature students who not only bully them but are positioned to introduce them to the staples of adolescent misconduct--sex, drugs, vandalism, and underachievement. This unintended consequence of retention should also serve to caution educators who make retention decisions.

This scenario is not to be misconstrued as an argument against multiage grouping. The illustration above refers to traditional age-separated classrooms in which traditional pedagogy is being utilized. The results of mixed-age groups in this setting may lead to undesirable social interaction among the children involved.

Retention and School Drop-Out

Perhaps one of the most frightening and costly effects of retention is the increased risk of dropping out of school. Although one of its goals is to provide children the opportunity to be more successful, and therefore stay in school longer, retention clearly has the opposite effect.

This phenomenon is well documented (Bossing & Brien, 1980; Doyle, 1989; Grissom & Shepard, 1989; Holloman, 1990; Moran, 1989; Nason, 1991; Natale, 1991; Safer, Heaton & Allen, 1977; Smith & Shepard, 1989). Grissom and Shepard (1989) reported correlational evidence that holding children back increased rather than decreased the risk of dropping out of school. Being retained one year almost doubled a student's likelihood of dropping out, while failing twice almost guaranteed it. In fact, retention is the second greatest predictor of school drop-out.

Students Likely To Be Affected by Retention

The education literature not only suggests a number of negative academic, social and emotional outcomes of retention, but also provides strong evidence that some children are more likely than others to be retained. This inequality is in direct contradiction of equal access to education and equal treatment of all people.

* Poor and Minority. A number of studies demonstrated that retention is more likely to affect certain children. House (1989) indicated that the children most likely to be retained are poor and minority children. When looking at figures of those overage for their grade placement, a disproportionate number were minority and/or representative of lower socioeconomic levels (Carstens, 1985; Doyle, 1989; House, 1989; Jackson, 1975; Mantzicopoulos, Morrison, Hinshaw & Carte, 1989; Moran, 1989; Rose, Medway, Cantrell & Marus, 1981). Shepard & Smith (1989) reported that in 1982 38 percent of African American children were overage for grade level by the age of 13, as compared to 23.4 percent of white children.

The 1976 U.S. Census reported 127,186 8-year-olds were enrolled below their expected grade level (Rose, Medway, Cantrell & Marus, 1981). Demographic data of this group revealed that these children tended to be of African American or Hispanic origin and from families below poverty level.

* Males. Mantzicopoulos, Morrison, Hinshaw and Carte (1989) and Safer, Heaton and Allen (1977) also found that boys were much more likely to be retained than girls. The fact that males were more likely to be retained has been supported in several investigations (Carstens, 1985; Charlesworth, 1989; House, 1989; Moran, 1989; Safer, Heaton & Allen, 1977; Shepard & Smith, 1989; Smith & Shepard, 1987). Shepard & Smith (1989) reported that in 1982, 29.9 percent of males by the age of 13 were below their expected grade level compared to 21.9 percent of females.

* Younger Children. Similarly, children who are the youngest and smallest in a class were more likely to be retained (Charlesworth, 1989; Mantzicopoulos, Morrison, Hinshaw & Carte, 1989; Shepard & Smith, 1986, 1987, 1989; Smith, 1989). Retention, along with a number of other solutions (e.g., raising entry age), is used unsuccessfully in an attempt to lessen the span of differences in groups of young children. Regardless of what kind of intervention is attempted, however, there will always be older and younger children in any particular grade. And, according to Shepard & Smith (1986, 1987), any class of 1st-graders will have a difference of 8 to 9 percentile points in reading achievement between oldest and youngest. But the age effect disappears by 3rd grade when these differences are no longer in evidence.

Findings such as these illustrate that some children are more likely to be retained. After reviewing literature related to failing children, House (1989) reported that students were retained in arbitrary and inconsistent ways and were more likely to be poor, males and minorities. As a result, it has been recommended that extreme measures such as legal litigation be pursued to address the issue (House, 1989; Smith & Shepard, 1989; Stroup & Zirkel, 1983). By challenging unfair school policies in the courts, legislation that ensures equal access to education and inhibits arbitrary retention practices may result.

School personnel have an obligation to ensure that all children of legal entry age have the opportunity for a successful education experience. Policies that deny equal access to appropriate education and result in unfair treatment for particular groups of children must be seriously considered and corrected.


Unfortunately, retaining students in grade for failure to meet specified competency levels or for other reasons, such as immaturity, is widely practiced in the United States. Retention policies are advocated by both the public and many education professionals. Yet, the definitive literature contradicts many popular beliefs about retention. Retention does not benefit students either academically or in areas of personal adjustment. Retention increases the variability of developmental levels in the classroom, rather than reducing it. Retention is highly correlated with the likelihood of dropping out of school. And, finally, retention is discriminatory in that the poor, minorities, boys and younger, smaller children are more likely to be retained than others.

In addressing children's academic and developmental needs, we must find solutions that promote their success and decrease the likelihood of further harmful effects. We should discontinue the well-meaning, but demonstrably harmful and costly, practice of retention.


Ames, L. (1980). Retention a step forward. Early Years, 11, 10-11.

Bocks, W. (1977). Nonpromotion: A year to grow? Educational Leadership, 34, 379-382.

Bossing, L., & Brien, P. (1980). A review of the elementary school promotion-retention. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 212 362)

Bracey, G. (1986). Not being promoted from kindergarten is like the death of parent. Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 245.

Byrnes, D. (1989). Attitudes of students, parents and educators toward repeating a grade. In L. Shepard & M. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp.108-131). New York: The Falmer Press.

Byrnes, D., & Yamamoto, K. (1985). Academic retention of elementary pupils: An inside look. Education, 106, 208-214.

Carstens, A. (1985). Retention and social promotion for the exceptional child. School Psychology Review, 14, 48-63.

Charlesworth, R. (1989). "Behind" before they start? Deciding how to deal with the risk of kindergarten "failure." Young Children, 44, 5-13.

Coffield, W., & Bloomers, P. (1956). Effects of nonpromotion on educational achievement in the elementary school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 47, 235-250.

Doyle, R. (1989). The resistance of conventional wisdom to research evidence: The case of retention in grade. Phi Delta Kappan, 71, 215-220.

Finlayson, H. (1977). Nonpromotion and self-concept development. Phi Delta Kappan, 59, 205-206.

Goodlad, J. (1954). Some effects of promotion and nonpromotion upon the social and personal adjustment of children. Journal of Experimental Education, 22, 301-328.

Grissom, J., & Shepard, L. (1989). Repeating and dropping out of school. In L. Shepard & M. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 3463). New York: The Falmer Press.

Holloman, S. (1990). Retention & redshirting: The dark side of kindergarten. Principal, 69, 13-15.

Holmes, C. (1983). The fourth R: Retention. Journal of Research in Developmental Education, 17, 1-6.

Holmes, C. (1989). Grade level retention effects: A meta-analysis of research studies. In L. Shepard and M. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 16-33). New York: The Falmer Press.

Holmes, T., & Matthews, K. (1984). The effects of non-promotion on elementary and junior high school pupils: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 54, 225-236.

House, E. (1989). Policy implications of retention research. In L. Shepard & M. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 202-213). New York: The Falmer Press.

Jackson, G. (1975). The research evidence on the effects of grade retention. Review of Educational Research, 45, 613-635.

Koons, C. (1977). Nonpromotion: A dead-end road. Phi Delta Kappan, 58, 701-702.

Labaree, D. (1984). Setting the standard: Alternative patterns for student promotion. Harvard Educational Review, 54, 69-87.

Lehr, F. (1982). Grade repetition vs. social promotion. Reading Teacher, 36, 234-237.

Lindvig, E. (1983). Grade retention: Evolving expectations and individual differences. The Clearing House, 253-256.

Mantzicopoulos, P., Morrison, D., Hinshaw, S., & Carte, E. (1989). Nonpromotion in kindergarten: The role of cognitive, perceptual, visual-motor, behavioral, achievement, socioeconomic, and demographic characteristics. American Educational Research Journal, 26, 107-121.

Moran, J. (1989). Professional standards for educators making retention decisions. Education, 109, 268-275.

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Natale, J. (1991, January). Rethinking grade retention. The Executive Educator, 15-18.

Niklason, L. (1984). Nonpromotion: A pseudoscientific solution. Psychology in the Schools, 21, 485-499.

Niklason, L. (1987). Do certain groups of children profit from a grade retention? Psychology in the Schools, 24, 339-345.

Owen, S., & Koon, C. (1978). Should children who lack skills be retained? Instructor, 87, 24.

Pomplun, M. (1988). Retention: The earlier the better? Journal of Educational Research, 81, 281-287.

Rose, J., Medway, F., Cantrell, V., & Marus, S. (1981). A fresh look at the retention-promotion controversy. Journal of School Psychology, 21, 201-211.

Safer, D., Heaton, R., & Allen, R. (1977). Socioeconomic factors influencing the rate of nonpromotion in elementary schools. Peabody Journal of Education, 54, 275-281.

Scott, B., & Ames, L. (1969). Improved academic, personal and social adjustment in selected primary school repeaters. Elementary School Journal, 69, 431-438.

Sheehan, R., Cryan, J., Wiechel, J., & Bandy, I. (1991). Factors contributing to success in elementary schools: Research findings for early childhood educators. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 6, 66-75.

Shepard, L., & Smith, M. (1986). Synthesis of research on school readiness and kindergarten retention. Educational Leadership, 43, 78-86.

Shepard, L., & Smith, M. (1987). Effects of kindergarten retention at the end of first grade. Psychology in the Schools, 24, 346-357.

Shepard, L., & Smith, M. (1989). Introduction and overview. In L. Shepard & M. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 1-15). New York: The Falmer Press.

Smith, M. (1989). Teachers' beliefs about retention. In L. Shepard & L. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 132-150). New York: The Falmer Press.

Smith, M., & Shepard, L. (1987). What doesn't work: Explaining policies of retention in the early grades. Phi Delta Kappan, 69, 129-134.

Smith, M., & Shepard, L. (1989). Flunking grades: A recapitulation. In L. Shepard & M. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 214-236). New York: The Falmer Press.

Stroup, W., & Zirkel, P. (1983). A legal look at the retention-promotion controversy. Journal of School Psychology, 21, 213-217.

Janet E. Foster is Associate Professor, Department of Early Childhood and Reading Education, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, Georgia.
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Author:Foster, Jane E.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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