• by Paula N. Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2018 •

Paula JohnsonRetaining students is a costly intervention that research shows is both counterproductive and unsuccessful (Johnson, 2016). States pay upwards of $12 million annually to implement a practice that has long-term negative impacts on students’ psychological, behavioral, economic and social well-being (West, 2012).

This article calls attention to the problematic trends in our national data, research on retention and its traumatic effects and how in-grade retention must be addressed as a civil rights issue. Strategies for increasing student success through more valuing approaches and recommendation for parents also are discussed.

Trends and Opinions Across the Nation

Retention of a student in the same grade from one year to the next usually occurs for one of three reasons: (1) poor performance on standardized proficiency or achievement tests at the end of specific years; (2) emotional immaturity that results in disruptive behavior; or (3) developmental immaturity resulting in learning difficulties, such as limited reading ability. Many times, absenteeism due to truancy and medical issues can play a role in a student being held back.

The United States saw an increase in retention with the introductions of education policies that hold schools accountable for student performance in ways that harm students. For many, the response to the pressure has been to either hold back students suspected to be unlikely to pass an upcoming standardized test or to impose consequences after students do poorly on a test.

Retention supporters believe that students will “catch-up” given the opportunity to repeat the previous years’ instruction, or time to mature. Studies have proven however that in-grade retention is counterproductive and harmful to students in the long run.

Students are most likely to be retained in first grade, but they are overall more likely to be retained in first through third grades (Warren & Saliba, 2012). Research on secondary effects of retention have shown that retained students are 11 times more likely to drop out of school (Andrew, 2014).

See IDRA’s new eBook: Failing In-Grade Retention. It outlines how an ineffective practice with lasting consequences, high price tags and civil rights implications can be wiped out by schools doing what schools do best: Teaching today’s children.

In-grade Retention as a Civil Rights Issue

On average, both Hispanic and Black students across grade levels are one and one half times more likely to be retained than White students (see graph). Additionally, English learners are retained at disproportionate rates nationally.

In-grade retention has been linked to increased rates of disciplinary actions and limited access to rigorous educational programs for students of color (Jimerson, et al., 2005). These disparities alone do not constitute a civil rights violation but they are a concern. It is critical that we investigate and address the underlying causes of these inequalities.

For example, students of color tend to have less access to quality instruction. Many times, they are under the care of teachers with little cultural competence and limited experience with the subject matter (Harris, et al., 2017). Racial bias impacts all areas of education, from policy to practice.

IDRA has nearly 50 years of successful partnerships with schools to address these concerns. Our capacity-building technical assistance, training and professional development has assisted hundreds of schools and districts in addressing civil rights-related complaints and equity issues, including:

  • Increasing access to advanced courses for all students,
  • Improving teaching quality for English learners,
  • Creating positive school climates and reducing bias, and
  • Countering opportunity gaps and resource inequities.

In particular, through our IDRA EAC-South, we build bridges among administrators, teachers, parents, students and community members so that all stakeholders can find that common higher ground where all students will benefit inclusive of race, gender, national origin or religion.

Parent Rights

Experts advise that parents should be included in all decisions related to the promotion or retention of their child and should voice their concerns to the teacher and school (Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012), and be aware of their school district’s policies on retention.

Parents can ask for the evidence that is being used in support of a retention decision, including examples of their child’s academic performance, standardized test results, and other related measures, including the student’s history of behavior in class and emotional maturity.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) advises parents to advocate for their child early on if the student is falling behind. Pro-active interventions can range from requesting instructional assistance, such as tutoring, to an evaluation to identify potential learning disabilities.

Effective Alternatives

Grade retention is an ineffective method for addressing the needs of students experiencing behavioral, social and emotional, or academic difficulties (Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012). Students should not be held back to escape the pressures of academic standards placed on schools and students. The idea that repeating a grade with the same material as a method of improving learning is already flawed, especially if nothing about the academic environment changes.

Students who are retained do not receive long-term benefits from the practice and usually perform more poorly than low-achieving peers who were not retained (Johnson & Rudolph, 2001; Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012). Retention also is associated with increases in behavior problems and issues with peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance (NASP, 2003; Jimerson & Renshaw, 2012).

Our underserved youth benefit for more from systemic academic supports than from repeating a year of schooling.

Increased teacher capacity to serve the needs of diverse learners, rigorous instructional programs for all students, and early intervention are the most effective -ways to ensure successful student outcomes (Kenneady, 2004). Specific strategies include early warning systems, special needs testing early intervention, intensified learning, and performance assessments instead of high-stakes standardized testing.

It is time for 21st century educators, researchers and policymakers to abandon the argument regarding grade retention versus social promotion. It is time to embrace equitable and productive courses of action that support success for all students.


Andrew, M. (2014). “The Scarring Effects of Primary-Grade Retention? A Study of Cumulative Advantage in the Educational Career,” Social Forces, 93(2), 653-685.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). “Alternatives to Grade Retention: Four Complementary Strategies to Improve Teaching and Learning Make More Sense Than Holding Students in Grade,” School Administrator.

Jimerson, S.R., Pletcher, S.M.W., & Kerr, M. (February 2005). “Alternatives to Grade Retention,” Principal Leadership, 11–15.

Jimerson, S.R., & Renshaw, T.L. (September 2012). “Retention and Social Promotion,” Principal Leadership.

Johnson, P. (October 2016). “In-Grade Retention in the Early Years – What’s Holding Children Back?,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Johnson, D., & Rudolph A. (2001). Beyond Social Promotion and Retention – Five Strategies to Help Students Succeed (Naperville, Ill: Learning Point Associates).

Harris, P.H., Shaffer, S., & Schlanger, P. (April 2017). “School Integration – Preparing Teachers for Working in Diverse Classrooms,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Kenneady, L.M. (June-July 2004). “Good for Nothing In-grade Retention,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

National Association for School Psychologists. (2003). NASP Position Statement: Grade Retention and Social Promotion (Bethesda, Md.: NASP). ‘

Warren, J.R., & Saliba, J. (2012). “First through Eighth Grade Retention Rates for All 50 States: A New Method and Initial Results,” Educational Researcher, 41(8), 320-329.

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

Paula N. Johnson, M.A., is an IDRA education associate and is associate director of the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2018 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.]