Towards the end of each school year, teachers and parents can find themselves faced with a vexing question: should my child repeat his/her school grade? Some may be driven to this question on the basis of social immaturity while others may be driven by failures to achieve the academic standards set for each grade level. Although the prevalence of grade retention in Australia is far lower than in countries such as the USA, anecdotal evidence suggests that its use as an intervention method continues. This brief article will summarise the available evidence to assist teachers and parents in making a difficult decision.
Who is retained?
The characteristics of students who are retained in a grade are wide and varied and there is very little Australian-based literature. However, it is safe to say that those who are retained tend to be:
Does grade retention improve student outcomes?
There have been scores of studies conducted since the 1970’s on the issue of grade retention. Many of them, however, suffer from significant methodological and statistical flaws. One should be careful therefore in relying too much upon the data from a single study; particularly if one is not familiar with sound research and statistical methodology. Fortunately a number of reviews and meta-analyses have been conducted which obviate the need for interpretation of individual studies (e.g., Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975; Jimerson, 2001).
On balance, these reviews have indicated that grade retention either has a negative impact on academic achievement (relative to equivalent promoted peers) or that the effect is null. That is, using retention as an intervention tool has little effect on academic achievement. When positive effects on academic achievement are reported they tend to diminish over time. Indeed, any benefits on achievement are lost when the retained children and their equivalent promoted peers face new material (e.g., Jimerson, Carlson, Rotert, Egeland & Sroufe, 1997).
Two studies have reported that older primary school children view grade retention as being in the top three stressful life events: along with losing a parent and going blind (e.g., Anderson, Jimerson & Whipple, 2005). Young children view retention as a punishment and experience sadness, fear and anger when not promoted. In the short-term retained children can face social isolation. For example, there is some evidence showing that peers choose younger same age peers with whom to play rather than the older retained child. In the longer-term retained students tend to experience poorer social adjustment and emotional health, including lower self-esteem and perceived competence, than equivalent promoted peers (e.g. Jimerson et al., 1997).
The presence of behaviour problems is a predictor of grade retention. Yet the evidence suggests that retention in a grade actually exacerbates the problem (e.g., Jimerson et al., 1997). In male students, grade retention can has long lasting adverse effects on inattentiveness, oppositional behaviour and aggressiveness (Pagani et al., 2001). A similar ‘spike’ in disruptive behaviour is typically seen in female students; however, unlike their male counterparts females display these behaviours for just a short period.
Does timing of retention affect outcomes?
Some authors have argued that age and maturity are significant factors in early school success and that perhaps holding children back will lead to better academic outcomes. Despite the intuitive appeal of holding back a student seen as immature, the evidence does not support the practice. While retention in later grades may be more harmful than when conducted in early grades, the effect is relative and does not mean that early retention is useful or effective.
The most often quoted alternative to grade retention is grade (or social) promotion, where the student is promoted along with his or her grade-peers. While some studies have reported small benefits for promoted students over retained peers, both groups perform more poorly than control students (those without any learning, emotional or behavioural difficulties; Silbergitt, Jimerson, Burns, Appleton & James, 2006). In other words, in the best possible case the promoted student will do slightly better than the retained student. However, both will continue to experience significant difficulties within the areas of function identified as being impaired. Grade promotion on its own then is hardly an alternative to retention.
What is required is grade promotion coupled with intensive intervention methods designed to specifically target the identified weaknesses. Even before this occurs, schools can reduce the possibility of retention through a process of early identification of children ‘at-risk’ (e.g., of reading or learning difficulties). Theoretically-driven and evidence- based early intervention programs (e.g., Direct Instruction programs for word-reading and oral comprehension skills, social skills programs and teacher training in behaviour change) can prevent the failure that leads to the dreaded question of to repeat or not to repeat.
When I wrote this article in 2007 I suggested that “What is required is grade promotion coupled with intensive intervention methods designed to specifically target the identified weaknesses.”
In fact, there is no evidence for this statement. To settle the question of grade retention forever we would have to conduct a study with four equivalent groups. Group 1 is retained with no additional intervention. Group 2 is retained with the “intensive intervention” I suggested. Group 3 is promoted with no additional intervention. Group 4 is promoted and given “intensive intervention”.
Of course, this study will never pass an ethics committee and therefore will never be conducted. We are therefore stuck with making decisions on less than perfect evidence. On balance, the probabilities still favour grade promotion + intensive intervention.
Anderson, G.E., Jimerson, S.R., & Whipple, A.D. (2005). Students’ ratings of stressful experiences at home and school: Loss of apparent and grade retention as superlative stressors. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21(1), 1-20.
Holmes, C.T. (1989). Grade-level retention effects: A meta-analysis of research studies. In L.A. Shepard & M.L. Smith (Eds.). Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 16-33). London: The Falmer Press.
Holmes, C.T. & Matthews, K.M. (1984). The effects of nonpromotion on elementary and junior high school pupils.: A meta-analysis. Reviews of Educational Research, 54, 225-236.
Jimerson, S.R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade-retention: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30, 420-438.
Jimerson, S. R. Carlson, E., Rotert, M., Egeland, B., & Sroufe, L.A. (1997). A prospective, longitudinal study of the correlates and consequences of early grade retention. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 3-25.
Pagani, L., Tremblay, R.E., Vitaro, F., Boulerice, B., & McDuff, P. (2001). Effects of grade retention on academic performance and behavioural development. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 297-315.
Silbergitt, B. Jimerson, S.R., Burns, M.K., Appleton, J.J. (2006). Does the timing of Grade retention make a difference? Examining the effects of early versus later retention. School Psychology Review, 35(1).