APA Division 15


Retention: “It’s Just What We’ve Always Done"

Is holding students back worth its associated negatives? Is there a better way?

Posted Sep 28, 2012

By Kathleen Day, M.Ed.

I once had a student who was a tremendous writer. She would show me her stories, baring her teenage soul in prose, poems, and lyrics. She had seen more in her life than most adults, which we often discussed in her counseling sessions. Yet, she maintained an infectious, sunny personality and a palpable drive to learn and succeed in school. Many times, she seemed to me to be way beyond the maturity level of her peers. Unfortunately, part of this was due to the fact that she was around three years older than the rest of her classmates. 

You see, because of forces outside of her control, this student had large periods of time in her educational career that she had missed. Subsequently, she was retained multiple times in her career in attempt to put her “back on track” while those her own age forged ahead.  She excelled when she was instructed, but often felt like she could not find anyone who she could relate to in her classes. During times when the developmental differences between her and her peers seemed particularly salient to her, her normally positive disposition would falter, she would start acting out in class, and sometimes she would consider dropping out of school—knowing that these types of behaviors could interfere with her dreams of graduating from high school and becoming a writer.  

Retention is not something that we often discuss in our current work; however, it is a phenomenon that is touching a large number of our students. Recent estimates report that 5 percent to 10 percent of students are retained every year. This translates to roughly 2.4 million students in our current school system having experienced retention at some point in their education. While the statistics alone may seem troubling, what is even more worrisome is the lack of research supporting this practice.   

Study after study tells us that retaining students negatively impacts student development.  Researchers have associated retention with decreases in school engagement, motivation, academic performance, and feelings of academic competence. Retention has also been related to issues with emotional, behavioral, social adjustment and school dropout. Students of color, males, and students who are poor are also more likely to be retained. This is especially troubling considering that many of these students are already in need of increased support, not more educational barriers.  

A few studies have shown positive gains for retained students, but often those studies have a few critical issues. For instance, these researchers have been unclear whether the gains from retention are merely the result of maturation. Also, many of them have not shown how long these gains will last while other researchers contend that positive results from retention are often short-lived.   

While I am not a proponent of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as it is currently written, one of the things that I do endorse is its focus on the implementation of evidence-based practices in our schools. Given that the bulk of the research that we have on retention points to negative outcomes for students, I propose that it is imperative that three things happen:

  • First, as researchers—if we are not prepared to say one way or the other whether retention is a worthy risk for our students—we must take on the challenge to put together a stronger set of studies to analyze this practice. It is important to these millions of students who are required to relive a whole grade-level (sometimes multiple times) that they, their parents, and their teachers know that this practice is a worthy endeavor.
  • Second, we must do the research on other options for students who would be retained.  The goals of retention are typically to increase skill mastery and accountability. There are students, like the one described earlier, who are missing critical skills for one reason or another. Even if retention goes away, these issues will not and we must have effective interventions ready for students to recover the skills they need.  
  • Third, a serious conversation needs to happen between researchers, educators, and policy makers regarding retention—and it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Some states, like North Carolina, continue to propose broad-sweeping policies that will require students to be retained after failing all or part of their standardized tests. If this happens, it could drastically increase the number of students who are retained every year. Also, there is a lack of policy regarding aspects of retention, like how many times one student can be retained. Thus, it is imperative that we share the results of retention research we have with policymakers and work together to address the implementation of this practice in our schools.


Kathleen Day is a doctoral student in Educational Psychology, Measurement, and Evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a former school counselor and is interested in how peer relationships, school contexts, and transitions impact adolescent development, especially for underserved students.



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The American Psychological Association’s Division 15 is a global association of educational psychologists

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