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Summary of Grade Retention Effects

//Summary of Grade Retention Effects

There is an abundance of research and scholarly analysis examining the efficacy of grade retention. Research published between 1950 and 2019 produced mixed results regarding the efficacy of early grade retention on ameliorating children’s socio-emotional and achievement needs. Concerns regarding the quality of many studies of grade retention have been presented in several reviews and reiterated in recent publications. These methodological concerns include: (a) data collected 20-30 years ago may be outdated; (b) characteristics of comparison groups are rarely delineated; (c) comparing pre and post-test scores of retained students rather than employing a comparison group may pose problems; (d) most studies do not consider socio-emotional outcomes; (e) remedial services during the repeated year are rarely documented, and (f) most studies do not examine the long-term outcomes associated with early grade retention. These methodological considerations limit unequivocal conclusions from any single study; however, the confluence of results clearly warrants further consideration. This study provides a meta-analysis of empirical studies published between 2010-2019 examining the efficacy of grade retention.

Methodology Used in Present Study

This project began with a systematic search of the literature to identify studies of grade retention published between 2010 and 2019. Descriptors used to search reference databases included grade retention, grade repetition, non-promotion, grade failure, flunked, failed, retained, and other related synonyms. Results of these searches yielded over 375 references between 2010-2019. In addition, other studies were identified through a review of references in each publication obtained, resulting in nearly 520 references for consideration. The following selection criteria were used to reduce the bibliography to a core set of research appropriate for this review. To be included in this review: (a) the research must have been presented in a professional publication (e.g., journal article or book); (b) the results must have addressed the efficacy of grade retention (i.e., achievement, socio-emotional, or other); (c) the study must have included an identifiable comparison group of promoted students; and (d) the research must have been published during the past decade. Based on the above selection criteria, 19 articles were included in this review.

Procedures for Summary and Analysis

The plan for summary and analysis of the 19 articles was to provide the following information: (a) variables used for matching the comparison group and retained students (i.e., IQ, academic achievement, socio-emotional and behavioral adjustment, socio-economic status, and gender); (b) specification of the age/grade at which retention and the measurement of outcome variables occurred; (c) designation of the location of the sample population; (d) a review of analyses comparing retained students to a matched group (i.e., academic achievement and socio-emotional and behavioral adjustment); and (e) the overall conclusion of the author(s) regarding the efficacy of grade retention. Each study was examined to identify the variables used for matching and the grade level at which the outcomes were studied. Most studies included only students retained during kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, however, a few included students retained kindergarten through eighth grade. Population samples for these studies are distributed across the nation.

Statistical meta-analysis

Statistical meta-analysis is based on the concept of effect size (ES). Computation of the effect size is a statistical procedure that allows researchers to systematically pool the results across studies, to examine the benefit or harm of an educational intervention. Meta-analysis procedures result in a measure of the difference between the two groups expressed in quantitative units that are comparable across studies. Each effect size is standardized with respect to the comparison group standard deviation; thus, it is possible to combine the results from different measures at different grade levels. A negative effect size suggests that an intervention (retention) had a negative effect relative to the comparison group of promoted students. Consistent with past metaanalyses of grade retention, the effect size was defined as the difference between the mean of the retained group, Xr, and the mean of the comparison (promoted) group, Xp, divided by the standard deviation of the comparison group, Sp (ES = (Xr – Xp)/Sp). Group means adjusted for past differences were used when available and calculated when possible. In studies where the necessary group means and standard deviations were not included in the publication, the authors were contacted to provide the necessary data. For a few analyses, the effect sizes were estimated by working backwards from the reported significance tests. Many of the results examined in the meta-analysis fell into two categories: (1) academic achievement and (2) socio-emotional/behavioral adjustment. Academic achievement analyses included language, arts, reading, mathematics, and grade point average. Socioemotional/ behavioral adjustment analyses included social (e.g., peer competence), emotional (e.g., internalizing problems), and behavioral (e.g., externalizing problems). Analyses also included self-concept, general academic adjustment, and attendance. Because some studies yielded one effect size and others yielded as many as 25, additional analyses were performed to discern whether any single study had produced substantial distortions in the effect sizes. For each study, all individual effect sizes were summed and averaged. These means were used to recalculate the effect sizes for each of the outcomes. This procedure gives each study equal weight in determining the overall result. Effect sizes weighted by study were not found to differ significantly from reported effect sizes weighted by the number of effects; thus, they do not appear in the results.

Brief Overview of Findings

Most studies published during the past decade utilized a combination of IQ, academic achievement, socio-emotional adjustment, SES, and gender to match groups or control analyses between the comparison group and the retained students. Of the 19 studies included, 15 examined outcomes through grade seven; only five included outcomes during eighth grade and beyond. Overall, results of the metaanalyses yielded average effect sizes indicating that the retained groups were.30 standard deviation units below the matched comparison groups. The average effect size for socio-emotional/ behavioral adjustment (-.19) and academic achievement (-.40) favored the matched comparison group over the retained group of students. The results indicate that the greatest differences between groups were evident on measures of attendance, reading, mathematics, language, and emotional adjustment (-.65, -.56, -.49, -.40, and -.25, respectively). In regards to the authors’ conclusions pertaining to the efficacy of grade retention as an intervention, of the 19 studies comparing retained students with a matched control group, the authors of 15 studies (79%) concluded that grade retention is ineffective as an intervention for academic achievement and socio-emotional adjustment.


This meta-analysis includes studies published between 2005 and 2010 provides additional information regarding the effectiveness of grade retention. In particular, these studies fail to demonstrate that grade retention provides greater benefits to students with academic or adjustment difficulties than does promotion to the next grade. Thus, it seems practical to move beyond the question “to retain or not to retain”. Available evidence suggests that neither social promotion nor grade retention will solve our nation’s educational ills nor facilitate the academic success of children. Instead, attention must be directed toward empirically supported prevention and remedial programs. It is suggested that educational professionals, scholars, and politicians commit to implementing and investigating specific prevention and remedial intervention strategies designed to facilitate educational achievement and socio-emotional adjustment of children at risk of school failure. It is time to move beyond the rhetoric regarding retention and social promotion; we should seriously consider the results of empirical research examining the efficacy of grade retention. Educational research provides valuable insight regarding the effectiveness of various prevention and academic intervention programs, these studies warrant further consideration as we attempt to enhance the educational outcomes of at-risk children. Considering the results of research from the past decade, grade retention fails to demonstrate effectiveness and would not be considered to be an empirically supported intervention.