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Staying back a grade

The practice of grade retention is increasingly common - but research suggests it can be harmful. What are parents of struggling kids supposed to do?

By Jessica Kelmon

If doctors use crackpot treatments that hurt patients, they face consequences.

Ironically, that’s the situation popping up across the country: Despite almost 100 years of research showing primarily harmful academic and social effects from repeating a grade, in the past few years many of our nation’s largest school systems (New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles to name a few) have implemented mandatory retention policies at various grade levels.

But if kids aren’t learning the skills, something must be done, right?

A few years ago, social promotion — pushing kids to the next grade irrespective of their academic abilities — came under fire. The practice became a rallying point for education reformers who were concerned that educators had gotten in the habit of just passing kids from one grade level to the next with no accountability.

“Social promotion is the main problem in our education system now,” says Pat Lamb, a teacher who in her long career has taught everything from Kindergarten to Home Economics to GED courses. “In 19 years [teaching GED classes], I can count on two hands the number of students who knew their multiplication tables. And these are typically taught in the third grade,” she says. Lamb advocates learning levels that are based on skill acquisition, not age. She’s often heard her GED students say that classes moved too fast. In her opinion, “They weren’t succeeding because they were passed along to deeper waters when they weren’t ready.” One of her own children was held back in fourth grade. “It gave him a chance to learn in more detail what was covered,” she says. “He became an excellent reader.”

Is flunking educational malpractice?

While an extra year sounds relatively benign, “research fails to support the benefits,” says Shane Jimerson, Professor of School Psychology at University of California at Santa Barbara. In fact, the National Association of School Psychologists’ review of the research has prompted the entire organization to oppose grade retention. For the most part, research shows “deleterious effects” for the child, both academically and socially.

For example, research on grade retention shows the initial academic gains from the hold-back decline within two to three years. Over time, all academic areas — reading, math, and language — are negatively impacted (with reading being the hardest hit). In the long run, grade retention is associated with increased behavioral problems, which tend to worsen as the child hits adolescence. Retained students have increased risks of alcohol and drug use, smoking, suicidal intentions, and violent behavior. Moreover, retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout.

In a long-term study, grade repeaters and low-achievers who were promoted were compared when they reached age 20. The students who repeated a grade earned less per hour and had lower employment statuses. In contrast, by age 20, those low-achieving students who were promoted had jobs comparable to a general population of peers. The study also found that as adults, grade repeaters were more likely to be unemployed, on welfare, or in prison. The picture is not positive.

But in many districts, the choice is no longer up to the parents. When Sandy Smith’s son was about three months into first grade, his teacher informed Smith that her son was behind and that she might recommend he repeat first grade. In their Los Angeles Unified School District school, retention in first grade is up to the parent’s discretion, but by law the teacher can hold children back irrespective of their parents’ wishes in second grade.

“At first, it’s kind of a pride thing,” Smith says, recalling her determination to prevent her son from “flunking” first grade. She worked with the teacher to identify her son’s obstacle: reading comprehension. Smith enrolled her son in a computer-based tutoring program twice a week after school. Tutoring made a small but measurable difference. At Smith’s discretion, her son was promoted to second grade.

Smith’s main concerns for her son were social. She didn’t want him teased or ostracized by his peers. She did her best to address the reading problem with tutoring and she chose to advance her son with his class, even though he was behind.
But the experts argue that social promotion is not an answer, either. “The evidence clearly indicates that we must move beyond grade retention and social promotion,” Jimerson says. “Instead, educational professionals must focus on interventions that build upon the strengths of students and target their needs.”

So what’s the parent of a struggling child to do? First, you need an appropriate assessment to evaluate your child’s area of skills and need. Then, take a targeted approach to help learning in those specific areas. Perhaps most importantly, monitor the progress every week (at a minimum). Start immediately and don’t forget to use the summer. “It’s documented that most kids have an academic decline over the summer,” Jimerson says. “That’s your opportunity to narrow the gap: You have an immediate opportunity in those three or four months of summer to provide targeted instruction to address a child’s needs,” he says.

For children struggling emotionally rather than academically, the same approach applies. “Acts immature” doesn’t tell us much, Jimerson says, but an assessment that finds poor problem-solving skills and poor self-regulation (they’re often intertwined) gives you something to work with. “Targeted over the summer, a child can clearly build these skills,” he says.

For Smith’s son, the tutoring method didn’t work. “About halfway through second grade he got really bogged down with the work,” Smith says. “He couldn’t keep up the pace. His little life got really stressful.” Her son was subject to mandatory retention. Luckily, the school addressed Smith’s fears. When school started the following year, her son was in a new second grade class that was physically far from the third grade class her son would have otherwise been in so the kids didn’t see each other in the halls much. Social activities like cub scouts and karate kept her son confident and happy. Smith’s son is now faring quite well in high school. “His brain needed another year to grow,” she says simply. “Really, there have been no issues ever since.” All in all, despite her initial hesitation, Smith has nothing but positive things to say about her son’s experience with retention.

In New York City, mandatory retention grades are third, fifth, seventh, and eighth. The system’s retention program, while test-based at its heart, isn’t only about scores. Research shows that students’ experiences with retention vary greatly when “supportive programs” — like early identification of at-risk students, small-group instruction, after-school programs, assessments, individual education plans (IEPs), and summer school — are part of the intervention. This is more in line with what Jimerson and the National Association of School Psychologists advocate for: individualized assessment and targeted attention.

Studies of New York City’s retention program have shown moderately positive results, at least so far, but Jimerson warns that parents should be wary of a test-based retention policy that doesn’t include individualized, targeted strategies to help their child learn. “Mandated grade retention appears to hold the student accountable, and fails to detail what specifically will be done during the subsequent year to address the student’s areas of need,” he says. And without that targeted intervention, “research fails to support grade retention.”

is an associate editor at

Comments from readers

"I have boy & girl twin grandchildren. My grandaughter is far beyond the 1st grade reading level. My grandson is far below 1st grade reading level. The school has recommened holding him back. As a matter of fact they insist on it or he can't return. It is a Charter School in MI. I would be a much simpler decision if they were not twins. I'm thinking of tutoring the grandson one on one this summer. Any suggestions on what to do would be greatly appreciated. "
"Where Can I find my states lawa on retaining my student? My son has all a's but because his reading fluency is low and he is not quite at grade level with his reading they are trying to hold him back. he is already older than his classmates, this will put him 3 years older in the fall if they do this. "
" I totally agree with keeping back a child for another year if they are not performing well in school because in my years of teaching and as a parent i saw that did wonders for some children becaused it gave them the opportunity to understand the previous work they had problems with. "
"Probably the most important statement in this article is: Smith’s son is now faring quite well in high school. “His brain needed another year to grow,� she says simply. “Really, there have been no issues ever since.� And that was preceded by: She worked with the teacher to identify her son’s obstacle: reading comprehension. Smith enrolled her son in. . . Here is an involved parent, working with the teacher, doing what is best for the child AND realizing that despite both her investment and the teachers' best efforts, her son needed more time. These are all essential parts of the formula that produced a good outcome. We can't just hope that a student will develop skills just because s/he is with friends of the same chronological age. While socialization is important, the primary purpose of school is education for life. "
"One of my daughters was held behind, and it was very detrimental. Her grades continued to decline and her self-esteem was irrevocably harmed. "
"I'm a teacher and I have a problem with the following statement about working with your child over the Summer: "You have an immediate opportunity in those three or four months of summer to provide targeted instruction to address a child’s needs� First of all...3 or 4 months? Try July + August = 2 months! Secondly, parents should be addressing their child's needs EVERY SINGLE DAY - don't wait until Summer. That's a big part of what is wrong with the entire educational system. There is a general lack of TEAMWORK. Student, parent(s), need all 3 on the same page in order to be effective in your child's academic progress. I understand that parents need to work (sometimes multiple jobs), the kids are in daycare from age 2 or younger; by the time they enter pre-K or Kindergarten, parents are placing their child's entire academic success solely in the teachers' hands. It is a PARTNERSHIP...your job is not done when your child starts school! Talk WITH your child daily...find out what they love about school...what they don't like and ask why. Ask your child's teachers for ideas & suggestions for home; activities that can support & extend what is going on in the classroom. This might sound corny, but here's something to do with the kids that won't cost anything...check out your local library! Shut off the TV, computers and cellphones for a specific time each day and read - even if it's the newspaper! Understand what was read; research what you don't understand & discuss it later. Sadly, we have forgotten how to communicate with each other. Is it any wonder? OMG...LOL...where R U? BRB... With texting and spell-check relied upon so heavily in today's world, conventional spelling and grammar is tragically becoming a thing of the past. JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE CALLED SMARTPHONES DOESN'T MEAN THEY MAKE YOU SMARTER! Enjoy your Summer! See you in September! "
"For those people commenting on doing other things to push your child to the next grade, I did that. I had my child pulled out of class for a Language Arts Assitance Program and he attended a special tutoring session twice a week after school for 45 minutes. Nothing helped! The school wanted to promote him to 2nd grade. We spent hours after school trying to do the homeowrk...this only led to tears and frustration. You have to look at the whole child, not just the grade on paper. If you would have looked at my son on paper...he looked fine. If you took an hour to sit with him you would see. The kid was so frustrated and down on himself. He was pulled out of class with the kids who could not speak English and was ridiculed and bullied because of it. One year after being held back and moved to a private school with small class sizes he is a totally different kid. I feel sad after reading these comments who are attacking teachers once again. My son's teachers were amazing. They were right by our side helping us do everything we could. They could not have done anything different. Sometimes a child needs a little extra time. There is nothing wrong with that and news flash's no ones fault!"
"I believe it is up to the individual child and parent. If a parent believes his/her child is ready and prepared to be in a class with older kids, then do so. My daughter is entering third grade in August and will be turning 8 in a couple of weeks. She is the youngest in her class yet one of the smartest. She reads well above her older peers and does extremely well in Math and other subjects. She was able to compete with 4 through 8 graders in Track & Field and even won against 6th and 7th graders. My son who is 13 is at age with his classmates. They have a 14 year old classmate. There's no problem with this and no one teases her. Again, my son is more mature than some of his peers (same age). He also does well in school and excels in sports. On the other hand, my nephew is one of the youngest, if not the youngest. He will be in 6th grade this coming August and will just be turning 11 in August. Since the beginning, he has been immature for his age. He does average in school and does his best in sports. However, compared to his other classmates, he is at or below average maturity wise. This may not be his fault. This is perhaps his mom's (my older sister) fault. She has babied him and continues to do so. His maturity level is definitely not up to par, but who am I to judge. Like I said, everyone is different. If a parent believes that his/her child is not old enough to start kindergarten, so be it."
"We retained our daughter in 3rd Grade because when we moved out of state she was very behind. The School back home where she attended Socially Promoted her in the the 1st grade then the 2nd so by the time we moved, she was already over 18 months behind going into 3rd grade and by this point she could not grasp the material and was having some learning issues. Retaining her was the Best thing we could have done for her both Socially and especially Academically. She is now entering Middle School (6th) Grade and is thriving. she is a little behind in Math but is now above Grade level in every other subject. the school here in Florida she now attends was a godsend for us, without them she would still be behind."
"As a mother of two (7 and 11) and former first grade bilingual teacher, I can only say that as usual --- and as almost everything in life--- it all depends on the individual situation. If the child is mature and ready for first grade, go for it. No purpose in holding back. My especial concern is for some boys, and for children born late in the year (August thru December)."
"I made that decision many years ago for my now 17 yr old.. he was a late summer birthday July 31, I could have put him straight into kinder or pre-K.. having had many friends that are Teachers, the decision was EASY.. let him EXCELL and be the oldest in the class, rather than put him in the bottom always struggling to keep uop with the older kids.. it is ALWAYS a better decision to have them be at the top! He is now going to be going into his Senior year, he has won scholar awards every single year, he excells as an athelete and is looking at dual scholarships already being scouted by colleges! So dont doubt for a second that holding your kid back for ANY reason is a bad thing.. it will be the best for the kid to let him shine!!! I promise!"
"Excellent article. I too struggled with a slow learner although sometimes her stubborn attitude was the basis for the problem which was solved somewhat by a well written IEP and a after school tutorial program. She didn't want to ask for help so pretended to know the work. Some teachers soon recognize this pattern but some others don't either notice or don't bother to pay attention until the child is faced with problems they can't solve. It is not alway easy to raise your hand and ask for help. Soe dedicated teachers who really want children to succeed with go the distance and encourage additional study periods (lunchtime coachesºto help bridge the gap."
"I have a little brother who is 5 and going to be 6 in july. He is a year above academically, but a year behind socially. At this point what do you do? do you have him repeat the grade because hes behind socially, but what about his academics? so then do we keep him in the class? or do we promote him and pray his social skills catch up?"
"My second child has a Nov birthday. We had him do 2 years in Kindergarten. When he got to 2nd grade, there were 6 kids he started school with, some did 2 years in K and some did 2 years in 1st grade. I tell parents to remember WHO the parent is. YOU! He is nothing like this article states. He finished school, DIDN'T get into drugs, NEVER got arrested, never been on welfare... He is the father of 3 and the Superintendent of a Landscape company. You can't just send your kids to school and leave it ALL up to the teachers! Being an involved parent and knowing your child is what MORE parents need to do. "
"Continuing to promote a child before a firm foundation is established creates a shaky learning structure that is bound to topple eventually. By then, its too late to go back to fix it. These children barely make it through 5th grade and suffer low self-esteem in Middle School when they are in a delicate developmental stage that depends on keeping up with the achievements of their peers. You are not doing any emotional favor for your child in the long run."
"My child was in third grade twice. Once in a Charter School and then again in a regular public school. We chose to do this because we were moving states and the cut off date made her younger than everyone else in the fourth grade she was moving to. (Age appropriate placement) We talked to her about the decision and she was definitely part of the process and outcome! We felt it would be good for her to be placed age appropriately and have the chance to learn how to function in the non-charter classroom. What we didn't realize was how much the repeated year would help her in other ways. Our daughter became more socially confident, developed amazing leadership skills and her learning processes had the chance to solidify. She is now a Junior in high school with nearly all A's in middle and high school classes. She is a peer leader and a incredibly active and involved person, in school and in the community. That extra year of creating confidence was the greatest thing we could have done for her!"
"Nothing in mentioned about holding kids back a grade for athletics. I hear a lot of parents doing that, so they can do good at sports, such as baseball."
" I comlpetely agree. Instead of bringing that student up to grade level they perfere to hold students back. I think if a teacher is not qualified to preform her duties as a teacher, then maybe the fault is ours for allowing ill trained teachers to teach our children. Is it the students fault? or ours. The school system in urban communities has been failing for years. Its about time we all do something about it, becase no one suffers more than our students' and their future, as well as our own."
"We held one of our children back due to being ambidextrious and needing more time to work on fine motor skills. Other than that, he tests 'high' for intelligence. According to research from your article, he should be failing or behind his peers still. He's faired very well! Your article is slanted very negatively towards holding children back. If you're a parent of a boy child looking for more research and information, read the book 'Why Boys Fail'. This gives much more information and helped us make the right decision for our child. Don't discount your own 'gut' and your attitude to help your child succeed. I didn't find this article helpful."
"This article never addresses if the school has programs set up or assistants in the class room to help kids who are struggling. Also, there are a number of different approaches that can/should be taken to help a child that is struggling. Why wouldn't these have been offered vs holding a child back. I think this is an easy way out. It makes it appear as though the child failed and really the teacher failed as well."
"I made the decision to hold my son back this past year. He moved to a new school, with smaller class sizes, and repeated 1st grade. The school year is almost over and I am so happy I made the decision. He is not as stressed, much more confident, and loves school again. I don't agree with these blanket statements being made about holding a child back. A child is not failing 1st grade...they are learning and every child learns at a different pace. To say holding a child back will land him in prison is ridiculous. My son will be a better learner and a better adult because of this decision. Each parent should be involved in their child's life in and out of school. Talk with the teachers, take advantage of the programs available, and make sure the school your child is at is the right fit for them. Just because a school looks good on paper it may not be the right fit for your child."
"The question as to why there are so many students in their teens who can hardly read has to be addressed. When they are not able to read at grade level in grade one what happens to them when promoted to primary two? How does one expect them to read at grade 2 level when they do not know their ABC. There is an interesting article here on this:"
"I have been observing the classroom behavior and academics in children who were retained, these tend to be problematic; instead of retaining them, they should use various methods for learning styles, then, tutored according to the learning style to start a success pattern to encourage more effort in the students."
"My son went to a charter school when he was 3 because the public school system did not accept him at that age for Pre-K since he would not turn 4 by their mandated date. I asked the charter school to put him in pre-k 3, instead they put him in pre-k 4 and at the end of that year (2009-2010) there was a promotion to kingergarten. This past school year (2010-2011) he attended the public school and was placed in pre-k and next year he will be in kindergarten. He is one year behind the classmates from the charter school but I believe he is a stronger student for it. He is a much stronger student this year than last time and I truly believe he is ready for kindergarten this coming school year. I felt the charter school would have pushed him along without all of the proper tools he needed to thrive in Kindergarten. I have to other children older than him so I knew what to look for in achievments at that level."