Grade Retention: Still a Failed Policy

K-12 Testing
Important new research by Guanglei Hong and Stephen Raudenbush reinforces years of findings that retaining students in grade harms rather than hurts the retained students without providing benefits to non-retained/promoted students. They looked at young children, whom retention proponents often view as the "safest" children to hold back, and concluded that "the kindergarten retention treatment leaves most retainees even further behind, and, therefore, impedes these children's cognitive development over the repetition year." While students who are retained do better the second year in the same grade, they actually would have learned substantially more if they had been promoted.


Previous research has shown that retained students fall behind even other low-scoring students who had been promoted. Any initial gains seen in the year a student is first retained soon disappear. That is, a student who repeats grade 2 is likely to be doing OK in comparison with her or his new classmates; but two or more years later, s/he most likely will be far behind, once again landing at the bottom of the class. In addition, substantial research has found that grade retention produces harmful emotional and psychological consequences and greatly increases the likelihood the students will drop out of school.


In "Effects of Kindergarten Retention Policy on Children's Cognitive Growth in Reading and Mathematics," Hong and Raudenbush use a national data base of kindergarteners and first grade students to examine the impact of retention on retained students, to estimate the consequences for the schools that have a retention policy, and to project how well retained students would have done had they been promoted.


They first discovered that schools that retained students had smaller class sizes, fewer minority and low-income students, and more parent involvement. Test scores were higher in schools that used retention, but when background variables were included, students in non-retention schools did as well as those in schools which used retention. Implementing a retention policy did not improve average school test scores. This casts doubt on the hypothesis that retention can be useful because it leads to more academically homogenous classrooms, enabling better teaching of those who are promoted. (Using less rigorous methods, Designs for Change found that Chicago schools with less retention improved more rapidly than did schools with the most retention; see story this issue link.)


They then estimated the impact of retention on the students who were retained. They found that "children who were retained would have learned more [in both reading and math] had they been promoted." The loss caused by retention was about half a year's expected growth.


Projecting how well they would have done had they been retained, the researchers concluded that retained students would have gained in both reading and math at about the pace of all promoted students. As a result, they would have remained at the bottom of their class -- but they would be well ahead of those who were retained [see charts on pages 217 and 219].


Put another way, promoted students greatly widened the gap with retained students - an expansion of the gap equivalent to about one half a year's expected learning. If the retained students had been promoted, the gap with those actually promoted would have remained about the same.


The study is in the Fall 2005 Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, available at


For more information on retention, go to and scroll down to "dropouts, grade retention."


For an excellent short review on this issue, see C. Thomas Holmes article at