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Grade Retention

Grade Retention

19 September, 2016

Grade retention is the practice of having a student (usually a general education student, rather than a special education student) repeat a grade level of schooling.

A retained student is sometimes referred to as having been “held back.”

In Canada and the United States, this practice is only used in the elementary, middle and high school level. Supporters of grade retention argue that this is done so as to help the student learn and sharpen skills such as organization, management, study skills, literacy and academic which are very important before entering middle school, high school, college and the workforce. However, extensive research has seen short term gains but little to no long-term improvement from grade retention, and significant harmful effects. The alternative to grade retention is a policy of social promotion, where students are promoted to the next grade despite their poor grades in order to keep them with social peers. The aim of promotion is not to harm the students’ self-esteem, to keep students together by age (together with their age cohort), and to allow teachers to remove problem students.


The possibility of grade retention has been revealed to be an extreme stressor for children at risk. In one study of childhood fears performed in the 1980s, the top three fears for sixth graders were: 1) loss of a parent, 2) going blind, 3) being retained. After two decades of increasing retention practices, a repeat of the study in 2001 found that grade retention was the single greatest fear, higher than loss of a parent or going blind.


During the 1970s, grade retention fell into disgrace, and the practice of Social promotion gained prominence. Social promotion is the promoting of underperforming students under the principle that maintaining with their peer group is significant to success. This trend reversed in the 1980s as concern about academic standards rose. Since then the practice of grade retention has dramatically increased.

The implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act has resulted in an upsurge in the retention of children who score poorly on achievement tests. The practice of making retention decisions on the basis of the results of a single test — called “high-stakes testing” — is widely condemned in scientific literature. Test authors normally advise that their tests are not enough for high-stakes decisions.


Some research shows development in the year following grade retention, particularly if additional instruction is provided. However, these gains are invariably lost in two to three years. Comparisons between students retained and students promoted who performed equivalently prior to retention decisions show the promoted students performing better. Furthermore, retention impacts poorly on measures of “social adjustment, attitudes toward school, behavioral outcomes, and attendance.” It is a “stronger predictor of delinquency that socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity,” and is also a strong predictor of drug and alcohol use and teenage pregnancy. Retained students are 2 to 11 times more likely to drop out of school than underachieving but promoted peers.