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The Effects of Mandatory Retention

In many states, third graders who cannot read proficiently are required to repeat that year. This policy, known as mandatory retention, can greatly impact students’ emotional and cognitive development. In an effort to reconcile the academic and social needs of young learners, this article addresses the pros and cons of mandatory retention, global treatment of the problem, and possible solutions.

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Recent policies enacted by states and school districts across the United States have reawakened the debate on mandatory grade retention. Since 2012, 14 states and the District of Columbia have adopted mandatory retention policies aimed at students who can’t read proficiently by the third grade.

In Ohio, Governor John Kasich signed into law (opens in a new window) the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, dictating that, starting this year, third-graders who fail a statewide reading test won’t be permitted to enter fourth grade. Instead, they must undergo intensive tutoring, summer school, or other programs. The only students exempt from the law are English language learners, students with disabilities, or children who have been previously retained. Similar laws are rolling out in Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Tennessee and Colorado.

In the 1960s, concerns that retention hinders the social, emotional, and cognitive development of at-risk students led many educators to call for students to be advanced to the next grade with their peers regardless of their academic performance. Although systematic data are scarce, this push for so-called “social promotion” appears to have reduced the incidence of retention nationwide.

But retention rates have surged with the advent of standards-based reform in the 1980s, again in some school systems in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and most recently, in 2012, with the startling data revealed about the importance of third grade achievement.

A study (opens in a new window) sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and conducted by Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at CUNY’s Hunter College, found that third-graders who lack proficiency in reading are four times more likely to become high school dropouts.

“Third grade is a kind of pivot point,” says Hernandez. “We teach reading for the first three grades and then after that children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics. In that sense if you haven’t succeeded by 3rd grade it’s more difficult to [remediate] than it would have been if you started before then.”

Retention rates have surged with the advent of standards-based reform in the 1980s, again in some school systems in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and most recently, in 2012, with the startling data revealed about the importance of third grade achievement.

Last year in Washington D.C., almost 60 percent of third-graders did not meet standard proficiency in reading.

“It’s been that way for a long time,” says D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange, who is proposing a third-grade retention law that would apply to traditional and charter schools. “And we have to try something different. There has to be a full-fledged assault on the problem in the classroom.”’But do the boons of mandatory retention outweigh the burdens? Is there another option, aside from social promotion? What are other nations doing to address this issue?

The Arguments


  • Moving students forward before they are ready sets them up for further failure.
  • Automatically promoting all students sends the erroneous message that they can get by without working hard.
  • Mixing underprepared students with prepared students puts unnecessary strain on teachers, who must slow down or repeat new concepts for those who are behind.
  • Letting underperforming students move forward gives parents a false sense of their children’s progress.
  • Holding students back in early education prevents them from being held back later on.
  • Pressure to meet early education standards motivates teachers to do their jobs more efficiently.
  • Since many retained students would have received an additional year or two of schooling anyway as a result of being retained later in their educational careers, the costs associated with holding them back a year early on are actually less than most people assume.


  • Holding students back lowers their self-esteem and makes them feel inferior, in effect perpetuating their failure. Read more about the Matthew Effect.
  • Retention impairs peer relationships, cutting off friendships made through the year and subjecting grade-repeating students to ridicule and bullying.
  • Students may view themselves as further alienated from school and academics rather than grateful for specialized help.
  • Retained students are more likely to drop out of school.
  • Studies show temporary increased achievement compared to promoted peers but loss of achievement over time as grade repeaters fall farther and farther behind other low achievers who were promoted.
  • Retained students make for larger class sizes, which are more difficult for teachers to manage.
  • The direct cost of retaining students in America exceeds $12 billion annually.
  • Research shows increased rates of dangerous behaviors such as drinking, drug abuse, crime, teenage pregnancy, depression, and suicide among retained students compared to similarly performing promoted students.
  • The effects of having a greater number of grade-retained peers are detrimental to the standardized achievement outcomes of non-retained classmates, a phenomenon often referred to as “the spillover effect.”

As more states started embracing mandatory retention last year, researchers Martin West (Harvard University) and Shane Jimerson (UC-Santa Barbara) squared off in a fervent debate (opens in a new window) over whether retention prepares students to be successful or sends them into a downward spiral.

West suggests that flaws in diagnosis and data analysis may have skewed our perception of how effective retention can be. “The decision to retain a student is typically made based on subtle considerations involving ability, maturity, and parental involvement that researchers are unable to incorporate into their analyses,” he says. “As a result, the disappointing outcomes of retained students may well reflect the reasons they were held back in the first place rather than the consequences of being retained.”

West cites studies on Florida’s test-based promotion policy as some of the more clear-cut evidence in support of mandatory retention. Since 2003, Florida has required that third graders scoring at the lowest performance level on the state reading test be retained and provided with intensive remediation.

According to several studies, students retained under Florida’s test-based promotion policy outperformed their promoted peers in both reading and math by an entire year’s worth of achievement growth for several years after repeating third grade; they were also 11 percentage points less likely to be retained one year after initially being held back and 4 percentage points less likely to be retained in subsequent grades.

Interestingly, after the initial spike to 13.5 percent retentions, the number of Florida students retained in third grade fell steadily in the six years following the introduction of its test-based promotion policy, reaching only 5.6 percent in 2008. This decline was due primarily to an increase in the number of students meeting the grade promotion standard.

Also important to note, Florida schools moved their best teachers to kindergarten, first, and second grades during this time.

“Although it is too soon to analyze the policy’s effects on students’ ultimate educational attainment and labor-market success,” West says, “this new evidence suggests that policies encouraging the retention and remediation of struggling readers can be a useful complement to broader efforts to reduce the number of students reading below grade level.”

Since the scientific literature largely rejects mandatory retention, however, it is these “broader efforts” that most education specialists are interested in.

The Campaign for Grade Level Reading (opens in a new window) is an organization dedicated to helping more children in low-income families succeed in their educational careers by targeting third grade achievement. The Campaign works with child and family advocates across the country to help assure a seamless system of care, services, and supports from birth through third grade.

This includes policy and practice that promotes children’s optimal social, emotional, and cognitive development; improves professional development for the early childhood education workforce, and supports parents as their children’s first teacher and best advocate.

President Obama recently proposed the establishment of universal preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. But with much of a child’s brain development occurring in the first three years of life, advocates say even that is too late. Poor babies as young as 9 months show a gap in cognitive development (opens in a new window) compared with wealthier peers, a gap that triples by the time they are 2 years old. The Campaign for Grade Level Reading aims to close this gap.

Other specialists favor improving the quality of instruction in grades K-2. Although often overlooked, this issue is critical given evidence that schools often assign less experienced and less effective teachers to those grades, which are typically excluded from state accountability systems.

“One of the dirty secrets of American education is that teachers who are ineffective in grades three through eight get moved to kindergarten through second grade where there are no accountability systems in place,” says West.

Reading specialist Debra Johnson, who rejects both mandatory retention and social promotion, proposes intensifying learning; providing professional development to assure skilled teachers; expanding learning options; assessing students in a manner to assist teachers (opens in a new window); and intervening in time to arrest poor performance.

A number of other solutions have been proposed, but educators and policymakers still can’t seem to agree on the best plan of action.

Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and do some observing. Are other nations partaking in similar debates? What are retention policies like in Europe, Asia, Africa? As it turns out, the United States is just one of many divided systems.

Is There an Answer?

As West said, it is too soon to analyze how widespread mandatory retention will affect students’ ultimate educational attainment and labor-market success. Few studies have followed retained students all the way through school and measured their final educational achievements. But it seems an ethical and political abomination to continue treating students like guinea pigs, especially when there is so much evidence urging us not to.

During messy debates like this one, it’s important to remember that the answer is most frequently found by examining the root of the problem — in this case, underachievement — and not by placing a bandage over the wound.

Briggs, S. (2013, July 4). The effects of mandatory retention and its use across the globe. Retrieved from (opens in a new window)
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