Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 5:20 EDT

Retention Realities and Educational Standards

January 15, 2006

By Leckrone, Mary Jane; Griffith, Bonnie G

During the late 1990s President Clinton called for an end to “social promotion” in his State of the Union addresses (Clinton, 1997,1998,1999). States began to develop explicit policies to address this issue. Legislation aimed at increasing standards and accountability was noted across the country. On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (PL. 107-110) as a reauthorization of the Elementary and secondary Education Act. With the passage of NCLB, states are required to set clear and high standards for what students in each grade should know in core academic subjects, and they are required to measure each student’s progress toward those standards.

Elements of this legislation have been beneficial in establishing the goal of improved student achievement and in providing information and options for parents. The mandate has placed greater emphasis on specific standards students must meet for promotion and graduation. Although the goal of improving the quality of education is laudable, there is a downside to these required standards; ironically many children are left behind through increased use of retention.


The practice of retaining children has been steadily increasing over the past three decades. As many as 15 percent of students repeat a grade each year in the United States (National Association of School Psychologists [NASP], 2003); between 30 percent and 50 percent have repeated a grade at least once by the time they reach ninth grade (Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 1999; McCoy & Reynolds, 1999). Higher incidence of retention can be found with certain groups of children, including male children, those from low-income families, and Hispanic and African American students (N ASP, 2003).


With NCLB, the federal government requires adoption of test- based accountability policies.This requirement has led to a host of difficulties as described in Goldberg’s (2004) article “The HighStakes Test Mess.”Teachers feel increased pressure to ensure that students do well on a standardized test selected at a state level. Most often this test is administered as a paper and pencil multiplechoice format in a single administration assessing content taught over multiple years.Teachers begin to teach within the narrow band of information likely to be tested, thereby limiting student learning. Students, parents, and teachers become discouraged and feel helpless when students are retained on the basis of results from a single test, regardless of their performance in the classroom with assigned materials and teacher assessments throughout the year.

Test publishers have felt pressure to produce tests that can be scored readily. At the same time educators question whether such tests accurately reflect the most important skills and knowledge students should possess before being permitted to proceed to the next grade level. Multiple incidents of testing irregularities have been noted, with some even going to criminal court for cases of cheating and tampering. Localities and states have backpedaled on promotion policies when dramatic increases of retained students have been noted. When Governor Jeb Bush was confronted in Florida in 2003 by irate parents on behalf of 6,000 students who were to repeat third grade after failing the state standards, he reluctantly conceded that county officials had authority to override test scores after considering student work (Goldberg, 2004).


The efficacy of grade retention has been a subject of research for more than 100 years. Although retention continues to rise, research findings consistently show no long-term benefit for students either in academic learning or social and behavioral adjustment.The continued use of retention as an educational intervention has been cited as “one of the clearest examples of poor communication between research and practice” (Sakowicz, 1996, p. 16).

Smith and Shepard (1987) investigated the high use of retention in the lower or primary grades and identified a pattern in which teachers exaggerated perceived benefits of retention and lacked feedback on how students did in subsequent years. Some studies have found that young children perform better immediately following a grade retention, but those gains are consistently lost within two to three years (NASP,2003), with students who repeat performing worse academically than carefully matched peers who were promoted (Smith & Shephard, 1989). One study noted a temporary advantage in math achievement that later disappeared as the retained children went on to face new material (Jimerson, Carlson, Rotert, Egeland, & Sroufe, 1997).

Grade retention as an educational intervention is practiced in an effort to improve student achievement and address developmental immaturity. Research findings suggest, however, a strong unintended negative effect for students’emotional health. Compared with a group of nonretained children, with similar levels of early achievement and comparable on two measures of intelligence, retained children showed subsequent poorer adjustment and emotional health (Jimerson et al., 1997).

In addition to academic weaknesses, grade retention is used for students with weak social and behavior skills. Unfortunately for students and educators, research suggests that repeating a grade does not help address such weaknesses. One such longitudinal study concluded that students retained in an early grade displayed exacerbated behavior problems by sixth grade, whereas their low- achieving but promoted peers’ behavior remained stable (Jimerson et al., 1997). Behavior rating scales completed by teachers and parents found significant increases in behavior problems for retained students, which became more pronounced in adolescence (NASP, 2003). Kelly and Balch (1971) found that school failure was a stronger predictor of delinquency than socioeconomic status (SES) or race or ethnicity.

Young children view retention as punishment (Byrnes &Yamamoto, 1986) and experience emotions of fear, anger, and sadness when not promoted. Children perceive it as a strong message the teacher and the school do not consider the student to be capable. Self-esteem, emotional functioning, and peer relations decline while school disengagement, absenteeism, and truancy increase (Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002). Researchers have studied student perception of retention as a potential stressor. More than two decades ago children were asked to rate 20 highly stressful events. Students in sixth grade feared retention as the third most stressful event, with loss of a parent and going blind as the highest two feared experiences. When the study was replicated 20 years later, sixth-grade students feared retention as the most stressful life event, followed by the loss of a parent and going blind (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2002).


As students continue through school, those who have been retained are twice as likely as comparable nonretained peers to repeat a grade for a second time (Texas Education Agency, 1996). Each retention dramatically increases the likelihood that the student will drop out before completing high school. In communities that use grade retention in the name of accountability while holding on to standardized testing, many students, especially the most vulnerable, lose more than they gain from current standards-based reforms. For retained children, bored and discouraged with their schooling and overage for grade, the threat of withholding a diploma rarely stimulates them to engage in school. Such students report feelings of alienation in the classroom climate and school environments (Tuck, 1989).

Studies have shown that 78 percent of students who drop out of school have been retained (Tuck, 1989). Although students who quit school may share other common characteristics, grade retention has been the most powerful predictor for dropping out of school (Janosz, LeBlanc, Boulerice, &Tremblay, 1997; Rumberger, 1995). Jimerson and colleagues (2002) reviewed 17 studies in which grade retention was associated with subsequent school withdrawal. Several of these studies controlled for variables such as SES, race and ethnicity, social emotional adjustment, gender, and parent levels of education and involvement.

A recent book from the Harvard Education Press asserts that only half of ethnic minority students graduate from high school with their peers (Orfield, 2004). Despite a dramatic rise in the dropout rate, public awareness of this issue remains low. Evidence is mounting, however, of unreported and under-reported dropout rates. The New York Times reviewed New York City’s 2002 data and found only 39 percent, rather than the reported 51 percent, of students in the 2002 class had graduated. One retired principal explained: “the discharge codes can be misused…by classifying students who drop out as having left the city” (Goldberg, 2004, p. 12). A more famous case in Sharpstown, Texas, was uncovered after President Bush heralded the poor, mostly ethnic minority school as a part of the “Texas miracle.” Although official statistics reported that the high school class of 1,000 students had not a single dropout, closer examination found the class fell to fewer than 300 stude\nts by senior year. When the Texas Education Agency investigated 2001 data from the same Houston area, it found that 3,000 students (55 percent) had incorrect or missing information and were later classified as dropouts (Goldberg).

The costs of increased use of retention and subsequent increased dropout rate is high not only to the individual, but also to society. An extra year of schooling is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $14 billion annually (Dawson, 1998). Beyond high school, controlled studies of comparable groups of children who were retained found poorer outcomes in early adulthood. Grade retention is one of the largest and most consistent predictors of later drug and alcohol use, delinquent behavior, and teenage pregnancy (Gottfredson, Fink, & Graham 1994; Grissom & Shepard, 1989). Grade repeaters were more likely to be unemployed as adults, live on public assistance, or be in prison compared with adults who did not repeat a grade (NASP, 2003).


Educators, administrators, and family members are encouraged to examine available research as well as their beliefs related to the practice of retention. Research on grade retention has indicated that promotion -with remediation provides more academic benefits than either retention alone, retention with remediation, or promotion alone (Smith & Shepard, 1989). School personnel and politicians must move beyond options of retention or social promotion to an analysis of educational interventions that promote student learning and success in the school setting.

Professional development opportunities for teachers to understand existing research and examine local policies and personal beliefs related to retention can promote involvement in the development of solutions to this dilemma. Staff development opportunities that foster increased understanding of and respect for cultural differences can aid educators in their efforts with students and their families. Interventions that start at an early age, and efforts to promote involvement of students as active participants, are necessary ingredients for improving student learning. Likewise, emphasis on the use of standardized and mandated assessments needs to shift to ongoing, performance-based measures that guide instruction for improved teaching and learning.

School systems can begin by analyzing actual numbers of students being retained to determine which groups of students and what grade levels are showing retentions in disproportionate numbers. Analysis may show school policies that have unintended negative effects, such as retention in a grade where some subjects were passed; retained students then have to repeat instruction in areas already mastered and become bored and discouraged. Disciplinary practices can exacerbate retentions. Many students attempt to mask skill deficits with disruptive behavior. This negative behavior can lead to removal from the classroom, resulting in missed instructional time and missed assignments. Ultimately a negative cycle is created that often results in retention.

Analysis of existing school policies and patterns of retentions can lead to preventive changes. School divisions could insert triggering mechanisms to identify students early in the school year who are at risk of failing. A diagnostic process could ensue to determine whether learning weaknesses, behavioral and emotional problems, or a combination of factors are the source of a student’s failure. Referral and implementation of proactive forms of intervention would be key to turning the failure around.

Some schools have found the high school freshman year to be a time of unusually high dropout rate. Gehring (2004), in his article “To Stem Dropouts, Urban Districts Switch Strategies,” discussed efforts on the part of educators to devise more flexible routes to graduation.These include ending strict retention of students who fail specific classes, allowing more time to complete needed credits, and offering career-themed academics and “twilight” high schools with later hours for working students.

Schools must identify empirically based practices that meet students’ needs. Johnson (Johnson & Rudolph, 2001) in the report “Critical Issue: Beyond Social Promotion and Retention-Five Strategies to Help Students Succeed” discussed the need to intensify learning as a crucial strategy to improve student performance. Making assignments easier is no solution to poor performance. Having rigorous and clearly defined standards as well as meaningful and authentic instruction with active student involvement have been shown to promote increased student learning.

Expanded learning options are a central tenet in the research literature for providing education to meet students’ needs. Block scheduling, year-round schooling,flexible grouping,and cooperative learning are some of the strategies that can be used. Smaller class sizes, multiage grouping, and looping, in which a teacher stays with a class of children for more than one grade level, have resulted in significant academic gains with specific ages and populations of students. Increased summer school opportunities in multiple subject areas, provided at no cost for students seeking to remedy a failed class, can help students continue successful progression through the grades with their peers.


School social workers can play an important role in developing strategies to prevent retention. At the macro level, social workers can seek opportunities to be instruments of change at the local and state level through participation in work teams, focus groups, and lobbying efforts. Raising awareness of state and local guidelines for use of retention as well as statistics related to dropout and graduation rates can help inform areas for change.

Social workers can help teachers and administrators understand the implications of retention and advocate for alternative policies, services, and interventions.Where possible,social workers can raise awareness that discipline problems and truancy increase with retention; students internalize the message of failure, become discouraged, and are more likely to act out. Providing professional development related to the needs of students and families from impoverished or culturally diverse backgrounds can promote more appropriate and meaningful instructional practices for today’s learners. Working with the community to understand the consequences of rising retention and dropout rates can foster community participation in solutions that could include business partnerships, tutoring and mentoring programs, and opportunities for student internships in the world of work.

Social work responsibilities provide numerous opportunities to intervene at the meso level. As team members in schools, social workers collaborate to identify students’ learning barriers and seek resources within the school or community to address them. For example, collaborative input from the teacher, school nurse, and school psychologist might lead to communication between the school social worker and the parent or relative of a child suspected of some type of attention deficit.This might require services of a physician and possibly a special education assessment, and communication between the social worker and parent could identify resources and steps to take to obtain that input.

One recent study published in Children & Schools (Lagana, 2004) identified family cohesion, peer support, and adult support as factors differentiating male adolescent students at risk of school dropout from their counterparts who where not at risk of school dropout.The author suggested school social workers need to develop intervention strategies that link at-risk students with peer and adult mentors before entrance to high school, where the risk of dropout begins to rise dramatically.

Resilience is the term identified by some educators as critical for helping an individual adapt and succeed despite risk and adversity. Resilient individuals exhibit social competence, problem- solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and future (Benard, 1996).Through group intervention with students, school social workers can foster characteristics of resilience as well as academically relevant skills such as study habits, organization, and time management.

At the micro level of intervention, analysis of needs common to students in an individual school who are at risk of retention could lead to individual or targeted small-group intervention. Examples include work with students needing help with anger management or services targeted to young people who are handling dual responsibilities as students while working or caring for a child or siblings. Collaboration with teachers regarding a student’s responsibilities or environmental experiences outside the school setting can help teachers in their interactions and instruction with a student. Consultation with teachers and parents related to behavior management strategies can further increase school success for specific students.

Parent involvement can be a crucial factor in the decision of retention or promotion of a student (Byrnes &Yamamoto, 1985). School social workers are in a unique position to interact with students’ families and to assist parents in advocating for their child and in seeking educational alternatives to retention. Social workers contribute skills for engaging parents in meaningful participation in their child’s education as well as for helping schools design opportunities for parents to feel welcome, respected, and needed. Frequent, informal, and positive school-to-home communications are strategies to help parents feel more comfortable and involved in their child’s school. Reaching out to families in their homes and communities and scheduling events and conferences to accommodate parent work schedules can promote effective school-family partnerships (Epstein, 1994).


Ashigher academic standards have emerged as a prominent national issue, it is important for legislators, administrators, and teachers to look for pathways to academic success for students who do not meet district or state standards of achievement. As mentioned earlier, retention as a response to a student not meeting academic milestones has an unintended negative impact on a student’s academic future, behavioral and emotional adjustment, and participation as adults in society. Essentially, we win the battle but lose the war.

A U.S. Department of Education (1999) publication titled “Taking Responsibility for Ending Social Promotion” quoted Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers as saying: “Neither social promotion nor holding kids back without help is a successful strategy for improving learning” (p. 4). At times social workers are the professionals who bring attention to unintended human and societal costs of policies designed to strengthen public education. Attention and resources must be directed toward alternative strategies that consider the whole child and provide the opportunity and assistance needed for each child to meet with educational success.


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Mary Jane Leckrone, MSW, MA, LCSW, is a school social worker, Hampton City Schools, 1 Franklin Street, 4th Floor, Hampton, VA 23669; e-mail: mleckrone@sbo. hampion.k12.va.us. Bannie G. Griffith, MSWi LCSW, is a school social worker, Hampton City Schools, Hampton, VA.

Accepted September 9, 2005

Copyright National Association of Social Workers, Incorporated Jan 2006