National Association of School Psychologists on Retention

Excerpts from: “Grade Retention: Achievement and Mental Health Outcomes”

By Gabrielle E. Anderson, Angela D. Whipple, & Shane R. Jimerson,

NCSP University of California, Santa Barbara


In response to increasing pressures to improve school performance, legislation and policies regarding grade level promotion standards have been developed at the national, state and district levels. The result has been a call for the “end of social promotion” and a renewed emphasis on grade retention as an educational remedy for underachieving children. Often it is thought that the “gift” of another year in the same grade will give the child reinforcing instruction as well as provide another year for the development of grade level educational skills. However, educational research fails to support grade retention as an effective intervention. In fact, grade retention has been associated with a host of negative outcomes on a variety of levels. Of particular concern is whether educators are addressing the academic, behavioral and mental health needs of children when recommending grade retention.

Retention refers to the practice of requiring a student who has been in a given grade level for a full school year to remain at that level for a subsequent school year (e.g., “flunking”). It is estimated that currently over 2.4 million (5-10%) students are retained every year in the United States. On the rise for the past twenty-five years, retention today is estimated to cost over 14 billion dollars per year to pay for the extra year of schooling. . . .

Research: Retention Is Ineffective, Maybe Harmful

Systematic reviews and meta-analyses examining research over the past century (studies between 1911–1999) conclude that the cumulative evidence does not support the use of grade retention as an intervention for academic achievement or socio-emotional adjustment problems (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001). Recent comparisons of academic achievement (i.e., reading, math, and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (i.e., emotional adjustment, peer competence, problem behaviors, attendance and self-esteem) between retained and matched comparison students, reported in 19 studies published during the 1990s, yielded negative effects of grade retention across all areas of achievement and socio-emotional adjustment (Jimerson, 2001).

Research also fails to find significant differences between groups of students retained early (kindergarten through 3rd grade) or later (4th through 8th grades). What is most important is that, across studies, retention at any grade level is associated with later high school dropout, as well as other deleterious long-term effects.

Typically, the test scores of students who are retained in the primary grades may increase for a couple of years and then decline below those of their equally low-achieving but socially promotedpeers. The temporary benefits of retention are deceptive, as teachers do not usually follow student progress beyond a few years.

Long-term Outcomes

Studies examining student adjustment and achievement through high school and beyond report assorted negative outcomes associated with grade retention. When comparing retained students with similarly under-achieving but promoted peers, research indicates that retained students have lower levels of academic adjustment in 11th grade and are more likely to drop out of high school by age 19 (Jimerson, 1999). In fact, retention was found to be one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout, with retained students 2 to 11 times more likely to drop out of high school than promoted students (Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002). Furthermore, the retained students are less likely to receive a high school diploma by age 20, receive poorer educational competence ratings, and are also less likely to be enrolled in post-secondary education of any kind. These youth also receive lower educational and employment status ratings and are paid less per hour at age 20 (Jimerson, 1999). . . .

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