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Pros and Cons of Grade Retention

Updated on December 21, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Grade Retention

With some studies suggesting that ten to twenty percent of all students have been retained at least once in their lifetime, grade retention is always a controversial topic. Some teachers openly advocate retention while other teachers are adamantly opposed. Both sides have studies that support their position. On paper, the idea of giving a child another year to develop skills sounds positive and worthwhile. However, ongoing research indicates that grade retention isn’t quite that simple. This article exposes both the positive and negative potential of student retention by examining the pros and cons of this important, controversial topic.

The Pros of Grade Retention

  • While grade retention is often associated with increased behavior problems, no study has clearly and definitively proven that retention caused these behavior problems. In fact, additional studies have indicated that poor students or struggling students have increased behavior problems regardless of whether they have or have not been retained.
  • Grade retention may certainly have a negative impact on peer relationships, but it may also eliminate any teasing or mistreatment associated with poor academic performance.
  • Grade retention may result in increased self-esteem due to greater academic performance.
  • While retained students are far more likely to drop out of high school, no study has been able to clearly isolate grade retention as the cause. Poor academic performance, regardless of retention or not, may be the true or largest cause of drop out.
  • Retained students are more likely to struggle with employment. No conclusive studies have ever isolated grade retention as the cause for employment difficulties. Studies have clearly shown that students who struggle in school often struggle in their jobs later on in life. Grade retention may have nothing to do with this.
  • Studies clearly show that alternate programs often benefit children more. Summer school, tutoring, and many other programs often provide better support and greater academic success for children who may be retained.

The Cons of Grade Retention

What do the studies show?

  • Grade retention is often associated with increased behavior problems.
  • Grade retention may have a negative impact on peer relationships.
  • Grade retention may have a negative impact on self-esteem.
  • Retained students are more likely to drop out of school, typically high school. Students who drop out are five times more likely to have been retained. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006)
  • Retained students are more likely to have worse education and employment histories.
  • Studies indicate that grade retention can result in immediate academic gains, but these academic gains often disappear after only a few years.
  • Retention does not always address the reason for academic difficulty. In at least one significant study, retained students showed a higher rate of special education placement, indicating that learning disabled students were being held back in place of meeting their needs.
  • While it may be true that studies show that alternate programs often benefit children more, many districts fail to offer such programs. Consequently, retention may be the best or the only option for teachers. Even with such programs, some students may benefit more by repeating an entire year rather than receiving isolated instruction or tutoring.

Grade Retention Conclusion

The problem with these retention studies is that the vast majority have been biased, either in favor of studying only retained students or in studying only students retained in elementary grades. Studies have been conducted in order to determine the effect of grade retention, but few studies have followed students that could have been retained but were not. However, most of the studies that did follow both groups tended to show greater academic progress and higher self-esteem among the students who were not retained, but these studies were often small and involved few students. Numerous negative statistics regarding retention hold true in virtually every study, but no scientific and unbiased study has conclusively eliminated other possible causes. Does grade retention cause a higher rate of drop out, or is it poor academics? Does grade retention hinder future employment, or is it a result of limited education? Nobody truly knows the answer to these questions. One thing does hold true. Placing every student into one category is a mistake. Each student retention must be looked at as an individual decision, one that is based on the likelihood of success rather than a statistic-driven decision that can be made based on a rubric, static policy, or a study. What’s right for one student may not be right for another. The potential for academic gain, family life, self-esteem, peer groups, teacher quality, and many other factors must be considered each time a teacher looks at retaining a student. In the end, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that either side of the issue is right. In fact, there is a good argument for both sides of this issue, and each student retention must be considered based on its own individual, unique circumstances.

Retention Poll

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The Pros and Cons of Grade Retention Comments

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    • arizonataylor profile image

      arizonataylor 5 years ago from Arizona


      Thank you. There truly are pros and cons to retention. What's right for one student or teacher isn't necessarily right for another.

      Best wishes.

    • DON BALDERAS profile image

      DON BALDERAS 5 years ago

      Personally, this is related to the kind of teaching environment the teacher offers in the school. It is in here that the teacher needs to assess whether his teaching matches with the learning styles of the students. Also,having grades and retention grades is inviting dropouts. Just thinking.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      This is a very interesting hub and you very nicely laid out the pros and cons of grade retention. My oldest sister repeated the first grade, but I seriously doubt that it really helped in her education. Grade retention is not an issue in Thailand. Social promotion is the entitlement for everyone. Voted up as interesting and sharing.

    • arizonataylor profile image

      arizonataylor 5 years ago from Arizona

      You've made a good point. I've seen multi-age classes work in this scenario too.

    • KrystalD profile image

      KrystalD 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      I enjoyed this article. I think multi-age classrooms are an often forgotten alternative to retention. I would rather see a struggling readers, for example, join a 1st/2nd grade mixed group as a 2nd grader and receive support with small group times that may include both 1st and 2nd graders than to feel the self-esteem blow of repeating 1st grade. I think this option is especially helpful because often students need help in one area but are clearly on or above grade level in other areas. Multi-age classrooms provides an opportunity for extra support where needed but appropriate challenges in other topics.

    • arizonataylor profile image

      arizonataylor 5 years ago from Arizona

      That's one of the biggest arguments in favor of not retaining. In fact, it's something that needs to be added in this article. The only problem with these classes/resources is that many districts don't have them. Consequently, retention ends up being the only primary option.

      Thank you for your comment. It was right on the money.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      to retain or not? it is difficult. it depends on a number of factors. i have seen it backfire. where it was supposed to 'help' it made even the youngest child not want to go to school.

      rather than retaining children transitional classes should be provided. we have those in Florida in some places. they are not 'called' that but that is what they are. they are classes that have teachers who have intensive training to 'shore up' the skills these children have not acquired. many leave those classes ready for the next grade without the stigma of 'failing.'