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Making Retention a Last Resort


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Too often, educators find themselves choosing between social promotion and retention, when neither benefits children. Some districts have found that intensive intervention in the early grades can eliminate the choice between two unappealing options. Included: Ways to keep struggling students from falling too far behind.

Vying for least appealing education strategy of all time are social promotion and pupil retention. The trouble is, traditionally, one has been seen as the antidote for the other.

Retaining students while their peers are promoted is bad for a child's self-esteem and may not help them academically, according to the argument. But promoting children without the skills for the next grade can be just as demoralizing.

The solution, according to some researchers, is to avoid both unsavory choices, and intervene early and often so children never get to the point of facing retention.


By changing the focus to try to get all students help when they need it, some school districts have seen their retention numbers plummet.

"Our retention policy is that we don't retain anyone unless absolutely necessary," said Dr. Linda Sheppard, director of elementary education for the Coatesville (Pennsylvania) Area School District. "We retain fewer than one percent on the elementary level. It's not really beneficial to the student, unless you change the whole program. And we try to avoid passing [an unprepared] student from one teacher to another."

The district sets benchmarks for promotion, and then offers tutoring and after school programs for students who need help keeping up. "We try to put everything in place for a particular student."

Administrators in the Everett Public Schools in Washington also view retention as the last step, not an educational strategy.

"We don't retain many; probably fewer than ten a year," said Gay Campbell, the district's director of communications. The district only considers retaining K-5 students, and has an elementary school enrollment of 12,000. "It's such a detrimental process. The research shows if a child is retained, and you do the same things, he or she will be further behind than ever. If you retain them, you need to do something different."

"We look at it to see if it [retention] truly will benefit the child, and see if there are any other ways we can help the student meet the standards. We have to look at every child and see what we have to do to get them there."

Everett has a detailed retention/promotion policy, that includes multiple criteria for evaluating students. "We hope we know early in the year if children need intervention," she added.

The California Department of Education also required all districts to adopt policies on retention and promotion in 1999, in an effort to prepare more students to move to the next grade, according to Larry Boes, an education program consultant for the department of education.

One aspect of the policy requires a parent's written permission to retain a student in kindergarten. "This [policy] grew out of a concern about social promotion -- we wanted students ready for the next grade," Boes said. "The policies were developed with the idea that districts would provide support to reduce retention; just retaining students was not effective. The aim is to minimize social promotion and retention."


Non-traditional school structures also help minimize retention. The Lincoln Prairie School, a pre-K to 8 school in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, with multi-age classes and a curriculum that stresses multiple intelligence learning, has not retained a student in the five years it has existed, said principal Jan Jetel.

"Multi-age learning is the gift of time," Jetel told Education World. "Students work to complete a curriculum cycle. The activities are open-ended and students can work on at their own pace."

More educators need to employ what works best for each child, according to Dr. Mark Alter, chairman of the department of teaching and learning at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. "Teachers need more flexibility; if a child is not reading, the child may need a different approach to reading," he said. To help a slow reader keep up with other subjects, a teacher can take the same science concept the class is studying and break it down to a lower reading level, he said. "Teachers should identify what works and what doesn't, and put in place an infrastructure that assumes a child can learn."


Numerous studies argue that holding children back does not help them catch up academically and can cause more social problems. Still, that does not prevent schools from doing it. In its position paper on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) notes that the use of grade retention has increased over the past 25 years, despite little indication of its effectiveness.

The NASP estimates that as many as 15 percent of American students repeat a grade each year, and between 30 percent and 50 percent of students in the U.S. are retained at least once before ninth grade.

Nineteen empirical studies conducted during the 1990s compared students who were retained with students who were promoted to the next grade, NASP noted. The results showed that grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement, including reading, mathematics, and language, as well as socio-emotional adjustment, such as peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance.

"I can't think of any pluses to it," said NYU's Alter. "Retention damages a child's self-esteem and impacts the family's perception of the child." And if nothing changes instructionally when the child repeats a grade, Alter noted, there is no reason to think doing the same work again will make the student successful. Before retaining a student, "Educators should be asking: 'What didn't work? What wasn't done earlier? What do we do to identify the difficulties a kid is having?'"

At the same time, Alter added, social promotion is not much better, a position echoed by NASP and the U.S. Department of Education.

In Taking Responsibility for Ending Social Promotion: A Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders, published in May 1999, U.S. Department of Education officials urge educators to eliminate social promotion, but not to replace the practice with retention: " research also shows that holding students back to repeat a grade (retention) without changing instructional strategies is ineffective," according to the report. "Much evidence suggests that the achievement of retained students still lags behind that of their peers after repeating a grade, making it an ineffective strategy for enabling students to catch up. Retention in grade also greatly increases the likelihood that a student will drop out of school -- and being held back twice makes dropping out a virtual certainty."


Frequently, educators feel the only alternative to social promotion for struggling students is retaining them, the report noted. The accountability and standards movements also have increased the pressure on districts to ensure students pass high stakes tests or clear other hurdles before being promoted.

"This scares me," Alter said. "I've heard more talk of retention than I've heard in a while, because there is more emphasis on testing driving other patterns. I think the talk is going to increase. The No Child Left Behind Act is putting pressure on the schools."

Some education officials, though, still see a place for retention. Joel I. Klein, chancellor of the New York City Public School System, the country's largest with 1.1 million students, announced in January that third graders who fail city-wide achievement tests this year will be retained. Based on the number of students who failed the tests last year, as many as 15,000 students could be repeating third grade.

"The chancellor has taken the side that it [retention] will work," Marge Feinberg, spokeswoman for the New York City schools, told Education World. "This is the first year there has been intensive intervention programs and individual support. The tests are given in the spring; the interventions are starting now [in the winter] to help students prepare for the tests."

Students who fail will be able to retake the tests in August; if they pass, they will be promoted, and if not, "they will repeat third grade with the support they need to master the skills necessary in order to advance," Klein said in a speech at the New York Urban League's second annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Symposium in January.

The system is implementing multiple support programs to help students stay on track to pass the tests the first time, he said. Newly-formed Student Success Teams in each school will identify students at risk of not meeting standards, assess their needs, and develop a K-3 intervention program, Klein said in his speech.

In the classroom, students who need extra help will receive differentiated instruction from teachers trained to meet their needs. Students also will receive instruction before and after school, on weekends, and during a Summer Success Academy, designed for second and third graders. The academy's focus will be on reading, writing, and math, and classes with no more than 15 students, according to Klein.

"By going down this road, we shine a public spotlight not only on what we expect from our students, but as importantly, what we expect from ourselves," the chancellor said. "Unless we are prepared to take the steps necessary to educate students to a level that enables them to move on to fourth grade, holding them back is ultimately an empty act."


Many parents, though, are upset with the policy and the fact that it was instituted mid-year, said Jan Atwell, executive director of United Parents Associations, a group urging that the policy be rescinded.

"Past practice shows this does not work," said Atwell, citing a similar effort by the city about 20 years ago. "The concept of retention has been tried in many places and not been successful. Not only did children not show a net gain, but more dropped out. We don't want to take a chance on more of our third graders dropping out."

The parents would like to see the district try smaller classes and earlier support services before instituting such a sweeping retention policy, Atwell told Education World. "Why not provide the support up front? All this has done is upset a lot of parents and students."

Even with the district's insistence that additional support will be provided, NYU's Alter said he is concerned about the possibility of thousands of children being retained.

"We'll see if the support infrastructure is available," he said. "Right now, teachers don't have the resources -- teachers must have instruction options, seven days a week, so you prevent retention and social promotion."

"When a kid is in danger of being held back, the bottom line is 'why?'" Alter continued. "We tend to blame the kid or the parent. It's not the kid's fault. Educators should be asking: 'What didn't work? What wasn't done earlier? What do we do to identify the difficulties a kid is having?' If you can't answer the question why the student didn't learn, you are in danger of repeating mistakes."


Social Promotion and Grade Retention

Retention and Social Promotion: Research and Implications for Policy (ERIC Digest)