by Paula Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2016

How willing are you to lose 2 percent of anything? Two cents of a dollar, 32 minutes out of a day. It doesn’t seem like much, does it? Unfortunately, that value takes on quite a different meaning when it represents the percentage of public school students retained during a school year.

And it is even more alarming when it means that 59,294 of the 2,679,569 public school students enrolled in grades K-6 during the 2013-14 school year in Texas were not promoted to the next grade (Texas Education Agency, 2016). Though this article focuses on Texas, the patterns and trends seen here are comparable to those across the country.

The term dropout is usually associated with someone who has left high school before earning their diploma or equivalent GED certificate. This month, IDRA released its 31st annual Texas public school attrition study, reporting a 25 percent public high school attrition rate for the 2015-16 school year, representing over 99,000 students lost from grades 9-12 (Johnson, 2016).

Much attention is placed on completion data. And for good reason. We want an educational system that allows students to successfully complete high school with the foundation to become productive citizens. However, research suggests that educators must focus on critical transition points that occur earlier in students’ academic careers in order to develop effective interventions toward reducing dropout rates years later in high school (Jerald, 2006).

Current Rates of Retention in Texas Public Schools

It is important to note that there are other indicators that can influence the decision to hold a child back a grade. These might include “subtle considerations involving ability, maturity and parent involvement that researchers are unable to incorporate into their analyses” (West, 2012).retentiongraph5in

Nevertheless, student academic performance and school engagement are primary measures related to dropout prevention that must be considered long before students reach middle school. The graph below shows the latest comprehensive record of K-6 in-grade retention rates for Texas public schools during the 2013-14 school year. As we can see, the highest rate of in-grade retention occurred in the first grade, followed by ninth grade.

A longitudinal study completed in 2014 analyzing patterns and trends in grade retention rates in the United States from 1995 to 2010, concluded that this pattern holds among all groups of students and across all geographic areas in the study (Warren, et al., 2014). In addition, student retention rates occur more often among boys than girls, particularly in the later grades; are found to be highest among Black students and Hispanic students; and are higher among immigrant children.

Furthermore, Warren, et al., found that rates are “higher among children of less well-educated parents and among children in the South and Northeast.” One hopeful observation from data collected by TEA from 2003 to 2014 shows a steady decline in retention rates at all grade levels K-6 during that time (TEA, 2014).

The Cost of Retention

The decision to retain a student at any grade is one that teachers do not take lightly. While students in secondary school have the ability to repeat individual courses and potentially catch up to their peers, elementary school children must repeat an entire year of academic material. That is a great personal cost to a child who is 5 to 10 years old.

Research indicates that early in-grade retention has a negative impact on students’ academic success, and a negative impact on psychological and behavioral engagement once they reach middle school. Unless positive and valuing measures are utilized in the following year, students who are retained often suffer from low self-esteem and feel they are being punished, or worse humiliated (McCollum, et al., 1999; West 2012). What was meant to be a positive intervention for success to improve their academic performance turns into a traumatic pre-adolescence experience.

In addition to the impact holding children back has on the lives of the students, retaining a student is a costly educational intervention. The cumulative costs of retaining 546,213 pupils over four years (from 1993-94 to 1996-97) total a staggering $2.48 billion in expenditures (TEA, 1998).

Today, the average annual cost for a state with a 2.3 percent retention rate exceeds $12 billion annually. Society is expending these funds “on a practice that research indicates is not only ineffective, but also counterproductive” (West, 2012).

Characteristics of Successful PK-3 Programs

The Reynolds, et al., 2006 review of extended early childhood programs dating back to 1972 revealed several key principles of successful PK-3 programs for children ages 3 to 9.

Continuity: Consistency and time in learning environments

  • School stability or reducing the negative effects of mobility
  • Increased program length for smooth transitions
  • Peer group consistency

• Organization: Structural features to increase intensity, length and quality

  • Leadership and coordination
  • Integration of program components within a single site
  • Second preschool year and full-day kindergarten
  • Reduced class sizes
  • Low child to staff ratios
  • Additional instructional and support staff

• Instruction: Coordination and integration of curriculum and teaching practices

  • School quality
  • Curriculum alignment
  • Setting common goals
  • Increased collaboration among staff
  • Joint staff development
  • Teacher training and professional development

• Family Support Services: Comprehensive services to promote smooth transitions

  • Parent involvement in children’s education
  • Resource mobilization

Understanding when and why students are disengaging from school can inform policy and practice to increase school holding power. We must look for the warning signs. Furthermore, early childhood programs must employ strategies that are instrumental in supporting learners through their first decade of life (Reynolds, 2006) as they transition through critical grades in school.

Though many students enter the educational system with characteristics (race, gender, language, or family income) that the system considers makes them at-risk of failure, that does not mean schools cannot successfully deliver excellent education for them. Children need the education system to see the value of every child and to develop policies and practices that meet their needs. If we do not make this our goal, if we do not see their worth, we will continue to lose our most precious gifts. And as Robledo Montecel & Goodman warn, the “problem of playing the traditional education game that blames the students and families is perhaps the main reason we have failed to reduce dropout rates” (2010).


Jerald, C.D. (2006). “Identifying Potential Dropouts: Key Lessons for Building an Early Warning Data System – A Dual Agenda of High Standards and High Graduation Rates,” White paper (Washington, D.C.: Achieve, Inc.).

Johnson, R. (2016). Public School Attrition Study, 2014-15: Texas High School Attrition Rates Stall (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

McCollum, P., & A. Cortez, O.H. Maroney, F. Montes. (1999). Failing Our Children: Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention, A Policy Brief (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Reynolds, A., & K. Magnuson, S.R. Ou. (2006). PK-3 Education: Programs and Practices that Work in Children’s First Decade (New York, N.Y.: Foundation for Child Development).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman (eds). (2010). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Texas Education Agency. (1998). Report on Grade Level Retention of Texas Students: 1996-97 (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency).

Texas Education Agency. (2016). Grade-Level Retention in Texas Public Schools, 2013-14 (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency).

Warren, J.R., & E. Hoffman, M. Andrew. (2014). “Patterns and Trends in Grade Retention Rates in the United States, 1995-2010,” Educational Researcher.

West, M.R. (2012). Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?, CCF Brief #49 (Washington, D.C.: Center on Children and Families).

Paula Johnson, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]