Grade Retention is NOT an Intervention: How WE Fail Students when THEY are Failing in School

Improving Grade Retention Policy, Practice, and Results

Dear Colleagues,

Last week, I was sitting in on a series of meetings between the multidisciplinary Student Assistance Team (involving the Principal, School Psychologist, Counselor, Academic Intervention Specialists, and Special Education teachers) and the respective grade-level teams in its elementary school. The purpose of the meetings was to review the current academic status and progress of every student in the school- - including the results of their interim and progress monitoring assessments, attendance, behavior, and related issues.

During the discussions of students not making academic progress, the possibility of retaining these specific students “for another year” continually arose.

Not just a few times, but a lot of times.

Over time, I got the sense that grade retention was one of the available interventions that the teachers and support staff routinely considered.

Moreover, when I asked for a description of the “typical” process for retained students the next year, I was told that these students would simply have an opportunity to experience the grade-level academic work for the next, repeated school year all over again. The implicit belief was that these students would be more ready to learn and master this work when given a second chance to experience the curriculum and instruction another time. . . because they were another year older.

In my experience, this process and belief represents what most elementary schools in the country do when retaining their students.

In my experience at the secondary level, retention is related more to a student’s class status or standing. At the high school level, if students do not pass enough courses and credits, then they are “kept back,” and do not graduate to the next (sophomore, junior, or senior class) year.

Regardless of their class standing, however- - if the school schedule permits- - they still can take the next course in the sequence of courses they have already passed. For example, while considered a “sophomore” due to total credits earned, a student may still be able to take a junior-level math course if s/he passed the prerequisite sophomore math course.

Another high school “retention” option is “credit recovery.” We probably should address this issue at another time.

Suffice it to say that most credit recovery programs are dumping grounds. There is very little direct instruction going on, they do not provide students with needed academic skill remediation (which is often why the students are failing in the first place), and there is good research to show that some students do not learn as well through computer-based instruction (even though they may “pass the course”).

At the middle school level, grade retention practices typically reflect more of an elementary than a high school approach. Thus, if a 7th grade student does not pass enough courses or attain enough credits, they most often are retained at that 7th grade level- - where they have to retake a few courses, even though they passed them the first time.

Retention is Not an Intervention: Negative Short- and Long-term Outcomes

To begin, I want to emphasize that I am not against grade retention. While it is used too often and too indiscriminately, I believe that grade retention should be:

  • Based on a data-based, functional assessment process where . . .
  • Specific strategic instructional or intervention approaches- - in the student’s area(s) of weakness- - are planfully integrated into the retention year and process. . . where
  • Students continue to receive instruction at their skill or instructional level in their areas of grade-level or above strength (so that they can continue to progress in these areas). . . and
  • Where all of the instructional and intervention strategies and approaches are progressively evaluated on their ability to help the student learn, master, and apply targeted skills.

Let’s look at some of the negative outcomes of grade retention that result when different parts of this statement are ignored or contradicted.

Negative Outcome #1. Retention May Negatively Impact Students’ Areas of Strength. When students re-take all of their coursework during a retention year, they may be “held back” in curricular areas where they are skilled, and that are not the reason for the retention.

For example, consider some 3rd grade students who are functioning a year behind in reading/language arts at the end of the school year, but on grade level in all other academic areas. If these students are retained in 3rd grade and have to take all of their coursework again at the beginning 3rd grade level, they will be receiving a year of (wasted) instruction in (for example) math, science, and social studies in content and skills areas that they have already mastered.

Even if these students were a full-year behind in reading/language arts, but only a half-year behind in math, science, and social studies, the first half of the retention year still would be redundant in these latter academic areas.

Solution. While not easy to coordinate, these students need to be taught at their instructional level in (given our example) math, science, and social studies from the beginning of the retention year so that they can continue to progress naturally in these areas of strength.

If this causes doubt in the wisdom of retaining these students, that would be appropriate.

Negative Outcome #2. Retention May Negatively Impact Students’ Motivation. There clearly are times when students are working as hard and making as much academic progress as they can. For these students, the “retention year” significantly impacts their confidence and motivation- - and becomes counter-productive. That is, during the retention year, they actually perform even worse than before, and fall even further behind.

For example, consider the students that I call the 8 in 10 Students. These are students- - whether due to “nature” or “nurture”- - who are consistently making 8 months of academic progress for every 10 months in school. At some point, the gap between these students’ functional skills and their grade placements become so large that their continued academic progress is challenged.

While it may appear “logical” to retain these students due to their skill gaps, the unintended result may be a “hit” to their confidence, social status, and motivation.

Thus, this academic “intervention” may result in the students emotionally “shutting down,” or behaviorally “acting out.” Over time, these social, emotional, and behavioral issues may overshadow the original academic issues- - and social, emotional, or behavioral interventions may become necessary in order for the student to benefit from any concurrent academic interventions.

At the secondary level, this situation is particularly prevalent. Many students in alternative education settings or programs, often have a grade retention in their history.

Solution. If schools can help the 8 in 10 Students to maintain their academic progress (or “speed of acquisition”), these students will graduate, could go to college, and will become productive employees. In order to do this, instruction will need to strategically include remediation, accommodation, modification, and assistive supports. The vocational interests of the students also will need to be programmed in, and the students may need five years of high school instead of four years.

However, the five years of high school will not occur due to grade retention. The five years will occur as part of a systematic plan that provides these students the instruction and, as appropriate, vocational and apprenticeship experiences that they need (and want) so that they learn, master, and are able to apply their academic skills across the curricula.

Negative Outcome #3. Retention May Deny Students Needed Instructional Adaptations or Interventions. When schools believe that a “retention is an intervention,” and when they do not understand the root causes underlying a student’s academic struggles, they may believe that the “second opportunity” to learn material during the retention year is all that is needed.

However- - based on diagnostic assessments completed with students as soon as their academic challenges are evident- - it may be that some students need strategically-selected remediation, accommodation, modification, and/or assistive supports in order to learn and master their skills. . . and that a year of retention will not result in the desired learning or mastery.

Moreover, the diagnostic assessments may result in recommendations for specific interventions to address students’ specific learning or skill deficits.

While that may be hard to believe in our “multi-tiered, response-to-intervention” world, I have written a number of Blogs and cited U.S. Department of Education-sponsored evaluation studies that have demonstrated that the “national” MTSS/RtI framework is flawed, and that most of the “Tier II” interventions are not based on individual diagnostic assessments.

Solution. As noted, schools need to complete diagnostic functional assessments to determine the root causes underlying a student’s academic struggles prior to any retention decision. In many cases, these functional assessments should include diagnostic assessment.

Schools should not be using a year of grade retention as an “experiment” or a “data gathering opportunity” to determine students’ need for subsequent functional and/or diagnostic assessments. That is not only inappropriate, it is unethical. Or said a different way: What teacher would allow this with his or her own child or adolescent?

Negative Outcome #4. Retention May Negatively Impact Students’ Potential for High School Graduation. One cumulative negative effect of all of the negative effects above involves student disengagement, school avoidance and truancy, and eventual school drop-out.

However, some students stay in high school but do not graduate. When graduation is contingent on passing a high-stakes proficiency test alone, and when grade retention has substituted for needed remediation, accommodation, modification, and/or assistive supports, we clearly must rethink this process.

This, then, brings us to the research on grade retention.

Some Recent Research on Grade Retention

Past research has shown few, if any, long-term student benefits due to grade retention, and the potential for some of the negative outcomes cited above.

Among the typical results:

  • Retention is not helpful at all grades, including kindergarten
  • Retention is higher when students change schools to transition and enter Grade 1, Middle School, and High School
  • While there may be an initial achievement “bump,” these initial positive effects tend to diminish over time
  • Most schools do not provide specific interventions during the retention year
  • Some decision-making teams use data selectively to support their preferences for or against retention
  • Retention almost doubles a student’s potential for dropping out of school, while two retentions almost guarantee this
  • There is a negative correlation between retention and race, gender, SES, and school outcomes

Beyond this, John Hattie has conducted over 800 meta-analyses involving 50,000 studies and more than 200 million students over the past 15 years. Focusing on factors that influence students’ achievement, he has determined that grade retention ranks 136 of the 138 factors that he has investigated.

According to Hattie: “The overall effects from retention are among the lowest of all educational interventions. It can be vividly noted that retention is overwhelmingly disastrous. The effects of retention, based on 861 studies was -0.15- - a decline in achievement of .15 standard deviations on achievement tests when a child is retained.

Finally, a recent Duke study (February, 2014) documented an interdependent “ripple effect” where the middle schools in North Carolina that had more students who had previously been retained had more students who were suspended, had substance abuse problems, fights, and classroom disruptions. Involving more than 79,000 students in these NC middle schools, this study looked not only at the students who had been retained, but how their presence in a school influenced their classmates.

More specifically, if 20% of the 7th graders in a middle school were older than their peers, the probability that other students in the school would commit an infraction or be suspended increased by 200%- - controlling for SES and parents’ level of education. While these discipline increases occurred for all student subgroups, they were more pronounced among white students and girls of all races.

The Duke study particularly noted North Carolina’s Read to Achieve policy whereby 3rd grade students not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are retained after interventions and summer reading camp experiences have not brought them up to a 4th grade readiness level. While the Duke study does not say that these students should not be retained, it does note that the widespread practice of retaining students can have negative effects on student behavior and school climate later on at the middle school level.

What’s Drives the Grade Retention Process (and Needs to Change)?

In order to establish more effective retention practices, it is important to understand (and change) the negative forces that are currently present.

Among these forces are the following:

  • State or District Policy
  • School and Staff Decision-Making Processes
  • Personnel, Resources, Time, and Scheduling
  • Tradition and/or Not Knowing What you do not Know

Relative to State Policy, over a dozen states now require the indiscriminate retention of students, especially at the end of 3rd grade, who are not reading “at grade level.” In a previous Blog, I argued that these policies make no sense especially when the retention decision (a) is based on a single, high-stakes state standards or proficiency test, and (b) cannot be altered when functional or diagnostic assessments demonstrate that the retention will be counter-productive.

I also questioned the origin and developmental validity of retention decisions at the 3rd grade level, and wondered whether such decisions should occur instead at the end of 4th grade.

Recommendation. With the passage of the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act this past December, and the law’s shift of power to the states, I strongly recommend that our state departments of education and state legislatures revisit and (as needed) revise any existing school retention policies based on the recommendations in this message.

Relative to District Policy, a similar review should occur so that retention decisions are research-informed, student-specific, data-based, intervention-focused, and outcome-driven.

Relative to School and Staff Decision-Making Processes, the importance of conducting functional and diagnostic assessments to determine the underlying reasons for students’ academic challenges has been emphasized throughout this discussion.

Below are a number of “high-hit” reasons why some students are academically failing that should be factored into any retention decision:

  • Poor or inconsistent teacher instruction. Studies have clearly shown that schools with high percentages of students living in poverty often have teachers with less experience who remain at the school for shorter periods of time. Other schools have teachers who are absent frequently, who are not well-matched to their grade levels or subject areas, or who have so many different skill levels of students in their classes that effective instruction is virtually impossible.

Given this, some unsuccessful students are actually “Instructional Casualties.” That is, their achievement gap is largely due to past or present ineffective instruction. Retaining “Instructional Casualty” students should be seriously questioned.

  • Poor curricula or student-curricula matching. When, for example, curricula are not based on sound pedagogical science, or are not well-matched to students’ cognitive-developmental levels and skills, students do not learn efficiently or effectively. Student learning also may be undermined when school curricula focus less on “mastery and trans-disciplinary instruction,” and more on “teaching to the test.”

Given this, some unsuccessful students are actually “Curricular Casualties.” That is, largely due to curricular flaws, they have not mastered the prerequisite skills needed to master advanced skills, or the foundational skills (e.g., in reading, math, and written expression) needed to master advanced (secondary level) coursework. Retaining “Curricular Casualty” students should be seriously questioned.

  • School attendance. This past October (2015), the Obama administration and the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice launched the “Every Student, Every Day” initiative to eliminate chronic absenteeism. Noting that an estimated 5 to 7.5 million students are chronically absent each year (defined as missing at least 18 days per year), the most-concerning long-term effects included (a) poor academic progress- - especially in reading, and (b) the high potential for dropping out of high school.

Clearly, some students fail because they are not exposed to effective instruction and sound curricula due to chronic absenteeism. Unless “catch-up” interventions are successful, retaining these students at the elementary level may be an option (if you can get them to school).

At the secondary level, students may need to re-take critical courses or classes. Hopefully, this can be accomplished on a course-by-course basis- - so that students can advance in the course areas they have passed, and only re-take the courses that they have failed.

As part of the functional assessment at both the elementary and secondary levels, the reasons for a student’s chronic absenteeism need to be determined. At times, the school absence problem is not in the student’s control (e.g., medical, psychological, transportation, family, safety issues). In these cases, if the student demonstrates mastery of the “missed” course material, retention should NOT be used as a punishment.

Even for students who are motivationally refusing to attend school, there are times- - if they can demonstrate mastery of the academic material- - when a strategic decision not to retain re-establishes the student’s motivation and results (long-term) in a “win-win” outcome.

The discussion above is one reason why state and local retention policies need to be flexible- - so that retention decisions can be sensitively and strategically applied to the individual factors present in each individual student’s case.

Relative to Personnel, Resources, Time, and Scheduling- - while I am sensitive to these issues, none of them should represent the primary reason why any student is retained.

But beyond this, schools need to think about how they are using their existing resources- - because sometimes the “interventions” provided to underachieving students are based on flawed models or are staffed inappropriately (see below).

If students are not making academic progress because of flawed or inappropriately staffed interventions, their “lack of progress” should NOT be used as a rationale for retention.

For example, a recent November, 2015 federal report, Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading, was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences [CLICK LINK HERE]. The largest federal investigation of its kind, the study involved approximately 24,000 first through third grade students in 146 schools in 13 states.

Comparing 1st through 3rd grade students receiving Tier II literacy intervention services with randomly-chosen matched students who needed these interventions but did not receive them, the results showed that:

  • The 1st graders receiving Tier II interventions performed 11 percent lower on the reading assessments than the comparison students who barely missed qualifying for the Tier II intervention approaches; and
  • The 2nd and 3rd graders receiving Tier II interventions experienced no significant reading benefits- - although they did not lose ground.
  • 37% of the students receiving Tier II interventions in Grade 1, 28% in Grade 2, and 22% in Grade 3 received these services from paraprofessionals- - not certified teachers or reading or other specialists.

Once again: If students are not making academic progress because of flawed or inappropriately staffed interventions, their “lack of progress” should NOT be used as a rationale for retention.

Relative to Tradition and/or Not Knowing What you do not Know- - once again, these are not appropriate reasons or excuses for making (retention) decisions that impact some students’ lives for the rest of their lives.


A few more statistics and realities:

  • 14 states and the District of Columbia have 3rd grade retention policies in place or pending.
  • Nearly 1 million students (2.3% of those enrolled) were retained during the 2009 – 2010 school year in our country. In our country’s largest 7,000 school districts, more than 141,000 of these students were in kindergarten through Grade 3- - 26,950 in 3rd grade alone.
  • During the same 2009 – 2010 school year, 49% of the retained 3rd graders and 56% of the retained 4th grade students in this country were African American- - even though less than 20% of the total school population was African American.
  • In all, African American students were nearly 3 times more likely to be retained than Caucasian students. Hispanic students were twice as likely. And, low SES students were 5 times more likely to be held back.

Just one of the implications here is the financial cost of a grade retention.

In 2005, the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University published a Cost-Benefit Analysis of Grade Retention. In making their calculations, they factored in the cost of the retention year itself, along with costs related to: (a) future remedial and special education services; (b) student drop-out resulting in a lower paying job or welfare; (c) health factors and the potential to commit crimes; and (e) having children living in poverty- - and renewing the same possible cycle through them.

If we only looked at the costs of the retention year itself: Let’s use the figure above of 1 million students retained in a single school year, and assume that even 25% of those were appropriate. If you multiply 750,000 students times an estimated $8,000 for the annual cost of educating a student in this country, you would end up with a cost of $6,000,000,000- - that is, 6 BILLION dollars.

While I understand that some of these costs are passive (because more teachers or resources are not necessarily added to deal with a retained student), what if some of this money was used to prevent student underachievement and to address it effectively and early on when it occurred?

And so, to end where I began:

I am not against grade retention. But when it occurs, it should be:

  • Based on a data-based, functional assessment process where. . .
  • Specific strategic instructional or intervention approaches- - in the student’s area(s) of weakness- - are planfully integrated into the retention year and process. . . where
  • Students continue to receive instruction at their skill or instructional level in their areas of grade-level or above strength (so that they can continue to progress in these areas). . . and
  • Where all of the instructional and intervention strategies and approaches are progressively evaluated on their ability to help the student learn, master, and apply targeted skills.

Retention is NOT an intervention. It only presents the opportunity for the right instructional or intervention approaches to be presented to a student to help him or her succeed. But if another year at the same grade level will not benefit a student, it should not be required. And we cannot answer this question until we fully understand the underlying reasons that explain a student’s lack of academic progress.

When educators are confronted by one-size-fits-all policies that are counter-productive to many students’ achievement, we need to question those policies and adapt our practices.

This is about the students- - not about policies that may be well-intended, but are not student-tested or student-friendly.

I hope that this information is useful to as you, and I appreciate everything that you do for student learners in our country. As always, if I can help your school(s) or district in any of the areas, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Feel free to forward this Blog link to your colleagues.