Student Retention


This site provides an overview of definitions, research, educational effects, and social effects of student retention. Through a comprehensive summary of peer reviewed research, recommendations are suggested as a preventative method to retention.

Social Promotion:

Social Promotion is often practiced by school districts across the nation. Students who are failing to meet performance and academic requirements who still move on to the next grade level are being socially promoted (Riley, 1999). Typically, social promotion occurs because districts assume that it is in the best interest of the students' social and psychological being to move up to the next grade level with his/her peers, rather than be held back to successfully complete academic work (Riley, 1999).

Student Retention:

Retention is the opposite of Social Promotion. Repetition and retention are often interchangeable. When a student is not meeting grade level performance and academic requirements, the school district can have the child repeat a grade (Jimerson, Pletcher, and Graydon, 2006). State law requires that every school district must have guidelines about student retention, however the guidelines are often vague and left up to the teachers and administrators to decide if a student is retained (Beebe- Frankenberger, 2004). The guidelines for student retention/promotion is called Pupil Promotion and Retention Policy. The PPR must be approved by the district's Board of Education (

Who Sets the Indicators and Standards for Retention?

It is state law that every school district has guidelines about student retention. However, the guidelines from state to state, district to district varies causing there to be a lack of continuoity and confusion about the standards of retention and promotion. The following are examples of California's guidelines for social promotion and Rochester City Schools guidelines for promotion in New York State. It demonstrates the varying guidelines of promotion and retention.

According to the Educational Code Section 48070.5 in California, social retention and promotion are based on these specific grade levels:

  • Between second and third grade
  • Between third and fourth grade
  • Between fourth and fifth grade
  • Between the end of the elementary grades and the beginning of middle school
  • Between the end of middle school grades and the beginning of high school (Elementary Education Office, 2008).

When school districts are deciding to retain a student, they focus primarily on students' reading levels, mathematic skills, and Language Arts skills (EC Section 48070.5<c>).

According to Rochester City School District’s “Administrative Guidelines For Academic Standards and Assessment Policy/Academic Intervention Services” student retention should occur as a last resort. If a student is having severe difficulties keeping up with the academic work, the school should take the following into consideration:

  • Length of time in the school’s program
  • Previous history of retention and support services
  • Other significant indicators (e.g. native language proficiency)

When students complete the third grade and did not demonstrate competence at the end of the second grade’s English Language Arts and/or math need to be given specific intervention strategies to help them continue moving forward. For Language Arts, students need to be reading and comprehending at Diagnostic Reading Assessment (DRA) level 24. The same standards are required at the end of sixth grade that they need to demonstrate competence at the end of fifth grade in both Language Arts and math. For Language Arts in fifth grade, students need to be reading and comprehending at a DRA level 50 (Rochester City School District Administrative Guidelines).

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education:
A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2006 compared the retention information for the years 1995, 1999, and 2004. The indicator used for the study focused on the total percentage of students ages 16-19 what had ever been retained in their school career and the corresponding effects on high school graduation (U.S. Department of Education, p.62). Data shows the rate of student retention decreased 16% in 1995, down four percentage points to 12% in 1999, and 10% for the 2004 school year. The statistics show, as the rate of retention declined from 1995 to 2004, fewer students dropped out of school (U.S. Department of Education, p.62). Students are less likely to drop out of school if they have not been retained.

In the same study, focusing on the years 1995, 1999 and 2004, the population of students retained was categorized by numerous characteristics such as grade level, gender, family income, family type, primary language spoken, region, and race/ethnicity (U.S. Department of Education, p.163). Data shows that in 1995, 11% of students were retained at the kindergarten through fifth grade level and 7% at grades six through twelve. This number significantly declined in the 2004 with a level of 5% at kindergarten through fifth grade and 5% at grades six through twelve.

A Study on Retention and Promotion:
Beebe-Frankenerger from the University of Montana along with Bocian, MacMillan, and Gresham from the University of California conducted a study to find out whether or not there is a correlation between identification of students with special needs and/or structured assistance and the rate of student retention. The data reflects a population of California students that has been randomly chosen from 22 elementary schools in urban neighborhoods (Beebe-Frankenerger, p.206). One part of the research study focused on IQ tests for students that have been retained, RET, and that were in special education classes, SE. Research shows that average IQ for RET students was 86.1 and SE students at 86.7. Using this information, one can conclude that if a district uses IQ testing for placement in special education courses then the RET students should be enrolled in SE courses for the following year. Beebe-Frankenerger and colleagues (2004) reference Blooms taxonomy in regards to the amount of time, motivation, and instruction necessary for a struggling student in order to reach full potential (Beebe-Frankenerger, p. 213). It is important with the results of IQ tests and state exams, teachers and administrators focus on the development of the child individually. “Whether these children are left behind depends on how one operationally defines no child left behind; if it means that all children must perform at a prescribed, one-size-fits-all level to demonstrate that they have not beeen left behind, then educaors are doomed to failure” (Beebe-Frankenerger, p.214).

Educational Effects of Student Retention.

Research indicates that neither social promotion nor grade retention have educational benefits or improve the success of students later on in life. If there are benefits, they are short-term and have been shown to diminish over time and eventually disappear in later grades. One may think that you can tell the difference between a retained and non-retained student by their level of intelligence and achievement. However, research indicates that retained students do not have lower IQ's than equally performing socially promoted peers. They do however have mothers with lower IQ scores, and little to no parental school involvement.

Students who are retained often show more behavior problems than academic problems. Retained students often misbehave more, are less confident and less engaging which affects their academics and social skills. Numerous studies have shown that students who have been retained are more likely to drop out of school than peers of the same educational level who were socially promoted. Later in life, these students have also been shown to have low employment status ratings, make less per hour and are often on welfare for longer periods of time.

Approximately 80 research studies have been done over the last 75 years that do not support grade retention as a way to achieve academic success (Jimerson, p. 88). Interventions and instructional strategies that provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to continue on in school without retaining them has proven to be an all around better choice.

Social Implications of Retention.

Jimerson (2001) states, analysis of multiple studies of retention indicate that retained students experience lower self-esteem and lower rates of school attendance, relative to promoted peers (p. 425). Research has shown negative effects from retention as the student grows older. If the students is retained multiple times, he or she is likely to experience increased feelings of shame and stress as well as negative feelings toward school. They often express acts of aggression and often lead to student dropping out of school. Anderson, Jimerson, and Whipple (2005) replicated and expanded upon this study and found that sixth-grade students rated grade retention as the most stressful life event, similar to the loss of a parent and going blind (p. 89). These students tend to continue to have negative life issues.

Jimerson, et al. (2002) says, without effective early prevention or intervention programs, the developmental trajectiories of children at risk of poor academic performance will likely lead to subsequent academic failure, perhaps even high school dropout. (p. 58) Family and teachers should be more involved in a child's education to prevent retention. Children who are retained have lower parental involvement in school compared to equally low-achieving and promoted peers. Jimerson (2002) reports, supporting the findings of previous research, family level variables such as lower maternal educational attainment and lower maternal value of education also characterized those retained students who later dropped out of high school relative to the retained students who persisted (p. 58) Larsin & Tariq (2007) reports, data from earlier studies suggested that, in general, most administrators and teachers neither know the source of the district's policy on retention nor whether research informed the development of it. (p.37)Schools should also develop clear standards in school policies to clarify student's educational progress. School standards are not uniformed to make decisions on whether the student should be retained or promoted.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has researched the impact on the retention among elementary, secondary, and late adolescence and early adulthood of children. Darling-Hammond (1998) states, even small children percieve that being held back is a stigma. (p. 18) In elementary school level, retention does not appear to have a positive impact on self -esteem but behavioral problems become more pronounce as the child reaches adolescence. In the secondary school level, retained students have increased risks of health compromising behaviors such as driving while drinking, use of alcohol during sexual activity, early onset of sexual activity, suicidal intentions, and violent behaviors. In late adolescence and early adulthood, grade repeaters are more likely to be unemployed, living in public assistance or in prison than adults who did not repeat a grade. Jimerson (1999) says, they were also less likely to be enrolled in a postsecondary education program, received lower education and employment status ratings, were paid less per hour, and received poorer employment competence ratings at 20 in comparison with a group of low-achieving students (p. 626).


Due to research findings which support no significant benefits to grade retention, different strategies and/or interventions should be implemented to ensure the educational success of students without grade retention.

Identifying a student struggling in school through assessment and implementation of early intervention programs will help to prevent these behavior and academic problems in the future. There are other school-based supports that are effective in assisting children with educational difficulties. Such programs include reading programs, summer school, direct instruction, personal intervention plans for individual students, tutoring, well-designed homework activities and after-school programs. Other strategies include encouraging parents to communicate regularly with their children and the school. Also, ensuring that teachers have the necessary skills to teach kids who needs further assistance and using multiple assessment measures for decision making is essential. Retention or promotion should not be decided on the basis of a single assessment. Multiple sources of information about students should be used including standardized tests, performance-based assessments, teacher recommendations, and grades.

Students response to interventions should be monitored so as to continue and/or modify the strategies as needed to ensure continual progress and success of these students.



Beebe-Frankenberger, M., Bocian, K. M., MacMillan, D. L., & Gresham, F. M.. (2004). Sorting second-grade students: Differentiating those retained from those promoted. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 204-215.

Bowman, L.J., (2005). Grade Retention: Is it a help or hindrance to student academic success? Preventing School Failure, 49(3), 42- 46.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Avoiding Both Grade Retention and Social Promotion. The School Administrator, 7(1), 48-53.

Jimerson, S.R., Ferguson, P., Whipple, A.D., Anderson, G.E., & Dalton M.J. (2002). Exploring the association between grade retention and dropout: A longitudinal study examining socio-emotional, behavioral, and achievement characteristics of retained students. The California School Psychologist, 7, 51-62.

Jimerson, S. R., Pletcher, S. M. W., Graydon, K., Schnurr, B. L., Nickerson, A. B., & Kundert, D. K. (2006). Beyond grade retention and social promotion: Promoting the social and academic competence of students. Psychology in Schools, 43(1), 85-97.

Jimerson, S. R., Pletcher, S. M., & Graydon, K. (2006). Beyond grade retention and social promotion: Promoting the social and academic competence of students. Psychology in the schools 43(1), 85-97.

Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30(3), 420-437.

Larsen, D.E., & Tariq A.T. (2007). Making decisions in the dark: Disconnects between retention research and middle-level practice. National Association of Secondary School Principals, 91(1), 33-56.

Riley, R. W. (1999). Taking responsibility for ending social promotion: A guide for educators and state and local leaders. U.S. Department of Education, 4-7.

Rochester City School District. (2008). Administrative guidelines for academic standards and assessment policy/academic intervention serivices. Rochester, NY: Rochester City School Board of Education.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. (2006). Grade retention: Indicator 25. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from[].

Authors: Ashley Bush, Lindsey Jackson, Lindsey Launer, Carell Smith

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