Should struggling students be held back a grade? Why researchers don’t have a clear answer.

Sofia Aliyeva, a third grader, works on learning the proper use of the word "spent" at Ellis Elementary.
A third grader works on learning the proper use of the word “spent” at a school in Colorado. Some policymakers say that third graders who are behind on reading should be held back. But research doesn’t offer a clear verdict on whether that’s a good idea. (J. Zubrzycki)

Holding kids back a grade has always been controversial practice, even as it’s had an enduring appeal to policymakers. 

Of late, there’s been more attention to improving young children’s reading skills — including by limiting “social promotion” and requiring struggling readers to repeat third grade. Mississippi in particular has been held up as a success story, since the state saw substantial growth in fourth-grade reading scores before the pandemic, even as the country as a whole has flatlined. Officials there credit the state’s third-grade retention policy. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called this “perhaps the most important single element” of Mississippi’s apparent success. Other states, including Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana, have recently adopted or are considering tougher retention laws.

But these policies are often unpopular with educators and parents of kids who might be held back. Critics argue that retaining students doesn’t help and may end up hurting them. Some contend that the practice isn’t applied fairly. Not all states are moving in this direction either. Earlier this year, Michigan rolled back its third-grade retention law amid concerns that it was unfair and ineffective.

So who’s right? Well, that’s the problem. Despite decades of research, there’s no clear answer on whether grade retention in early grades is a good idea. Existing data is open to competing interpretations, and big questions about the policy remain unanswered.

Brian Jacob, a professor at University of Michigan, has studied retention for many years, but he still is ambivalent about the policy. “I do really come out kind of in the middle,” he said.

While middle-school retention seems to be harmful, said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University, “The evidence on grade retention in the earlier grades is more ambiguous at this point. We have some places where we see some pretty meaningful positive effects and other places where we haven’t seen those positive effects.”

Retention appears to boost test scores – at least in the short term.

Researchers have developed a clever way to study the effects of grade retention. Since schools often use a pass–fail test threshold to determine whether a student should be held back, studies can compare students who scored just below that benchmark to those just above. The students are nearly identical — except one group is held back a grade, while the other moves forward. Researchers call this a natural experiment. (There are often exceptions below the cutoff that allow students to still be promoted, but there are ways to account for this. Also these studies focus on test-based retention policies; they don’t look at school-driven decisions to hold students back, which may be more common.)

This is the strategy of a recent paper from Mississippi, co-authored by Winters, who has studied retention policies for decades. Third grade students who were held back scored substantially higher on reading exams up through sixth grade compared to similar students who weren’t retained, the study found. (There was no apparent effect in math or attendance rates.) Studies in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and New York City have also found test score gains from retention. Often these gains are quite large.

These results are not too surprising. Retained students have an additional year of school and are a year older than the non-retained kids when they take a grade-level test. That means that age, natural development, and more time in class might explain the higher scores. That is part of the idea behind retention: giving students extra time to learn.

Another potential explanation is that retention policies aren’t just about retention. The Mississippi researchers note that “schools are required to provide retained students with 90-minutes of reading instruction and intensive interventions with progress monitoring and other supports.” It’s not clear what part of the gains came from retention versus these other efforts or some combination.

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Still, recent research suggests that holding kids back in early grades improves their test scores in the short to medium term. This is encouraging news. But the story does not end there.

The long-run effects of early grade retention are not clear.

Perhaps the more important question about holding students back is how it affects them in the long run. 

For later grades, the research is fairly clear. Multiple studies have found that holding back middle schoolers increases their odds of dropping out of high school. “The evidence on retaining students in the later grades — I think that’s unambiguously negative,” said Winters.

But the research for elementary school retention — which is the focus of current policy discussions — is more complicated. 

Perhaps the most comprehensive study on this question looked at Florida, which in the early 2000s was the Mississippi of the moment. The state’s large fourth-grade NAEP gains had some policymakers seeking to replicate it. Researchers, including Winters, tracked students there all the way to high school. By 10th grade, the retained students still had higher test scores than 10th graders who weren’t retained (and therefore were younger). They also had higher grade point averages and took fewer remedial courses. Retained students were no more or less likely to graduate, but they took longer to do by over half a year. This reflected being held back a year. Retained students also earned slightly fewer class credits.

Another study in New York City found that elementary grade retention neither helped nor hurt students’ chances of graduating. Students were slower to accumulate high school credits, which again probably reflected being a year behind. There was some evidence that retained students had higher test scores. 

Finally, a Louisiana study found that being held back in fourth grade led to higher dropout rates, by 3 percentage points. Like the other studies, retained students had higher test scores at first, but in this case those gains faded out by eighth grade.

All in all, there are only a handful of long-run studies of early grade retention. Unlike the studies of test scores, they reach mixed conclusions.

A big question is whether retention policies benefit those who are not retained.

Even when states ratchet up retention rules, relatively few students are actually held back each year. But students who aren’t held might also be affected by these policies too. Maybe students themselves make more of an effort in class or show up to summer school to avoid being held back. Perhaps the threat of retention motivates schools to focus more on reading in early grades or institute summer catch-up programs. “There’s nothing like a really high-stakes negative consequence for children to get the adults moving,” said Jacob.

There’s only limited evidence on this, though.

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In New York City, a combination of grade retention and school accountability seemed to substantially improve math test scores and attendance rates. A national study found long-term benefits from retention in early grades. Students who went to school in a state with higher retention rates ended up earning slightly higher wages as adults (by 0.7%). 

But the incentive effect of retention may not be all good. In some cases, high-stakes testing has led schools to shift time away from other important subjects, transfer the worst teachers to different grades, or spend more time on test prep. A study conducted by Jacob in Chicago found that accountability policies, including retention, improved scores in early grades on the high-stakes exam, but not on a low-stakes test. This might point to teaching to the test.

Retention policies may not be applied equally across individual students or student groups.

Separate from the question of whether retention is beneficial, some argue that it is unfair and arbitrary. This is especially concerning if retention ends up having harmful long-run effects, which has occurred in at least some cases.

Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are disproportionately held back. Part of this reflects the fact that those students, on average, score worse on state tests. But that does not appear to be the only reason.

Typically even when promotion is based on a single exam, there are a number of ways for students who fail to avoid being held back. Oftentimes there is significant school discretion, which can raise the possibility of bias. In New York City, Black and Hispanic students who failed the state exam were more likely to be retained than white students who also fell short. In Florida, children who did not score proficient on the state exam were less likely to be held back if they had highly educated mothers. Those families were more likely to take advantage of discretionary exemptions to the policy. “Florida’s third-grade retention policy is in fact enforced differentially depending on children’s socioeconomic background,” researchers there concluded.

The overall costs and benefits of retention are not well understood.

Fundamentally, grade retention is an attempt to require struggling students to spend an extra year in school. This comes with both potential costs and benefits, and it’s hard to sort them all out. “There are so many different components,” said Jacob.

On the one hand, it costs school systems more money to provide that additional year (since it’s more expensive to operate schools with more students). Retention also has a direct cost to the students themselves: Many are delayed a year from entering the workforce because they have to spend another year in school. That can reduce their short- and long-run earnings. Plus, requiring students to take an extra year to graduate may cause more of them to drop out. (Though as previously noted, there is mixed evidence of this with early grade retention.) 

On the other hand, students learn when they’re in school. So, as seen, adding an extra year seems to boost students’ test scores. That may help them in a number of ways, including getting a better job. Plus, retention policies may improve results across the board, which could have major benefits.

How do these pros and cons add up? Ultimately, researchers say there’s no clear answer. It’s similarly hard to know why some retention policies seem to work better than others. These unsatisfactory conclusions help explain why debates about retention are likely to continue for many years to come.

Matt Barnum is a national reporter covering education policy, politics, and research. Contact him at mbarnum@chalkbeat.org.

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