To Retain or Not To Retain? --That is the Question

It’s about that time of the year, when you are faced with the decision of whether or not to move struggling students on to the next grade level or retain them, in hopes of them being able to meet the state/common core standards. You have been with your students for at least 6 months, and through various forms of informal and formal assessments, it is quite evident which students are “just not getting it”. You have tried every tactic you know--from one on one tutoring to threats of staying behind while all their peers move on (aka: public humiliation…).

You have wondered many times to yourself (or out loud), “HOW DID THIS CHILD GET INTO _________ GRADE?”

Now, the administrators are asking, “Do you have any students you would like to retain?”

You have a list of names ready, BUT, will holding the student back be the best option for him/her?

Here are some things to consider before making this very important decision:

1. Demographics

Factors that a school is able to control, such as educational level and teaching experience of the staff, have little to do with student performance; but socioeconomic factors present in schools seem to significantly influence a student’s ability to succeed (Okpala, 2002).

Understanding the different backgrounds of the students sitting in your classroom/school is extremely important. I am a major advocate for parent accountability and involvement, but until it is mandated in public schools, we cannot continue to ignore the education and financial levels of our students’ parents and push that upon the child. An elementary child cannot be held responsible for incomplete or incorrect homework, when there is no one home or willing and able to work with them.

Professionals have known for years that the greatest predictor of a child's success in school is the education level of the parents, particularly the mother. Research has shown that a relationship exists between school system effectiveness, the socioeconomic status of families in the community, and the educational level of parents. Recent studies have suggested that early childhood experiences affect learning and development, with children from impoverished environments generally achieving at lower levels than those from more enriching situations. (Banbridge & Lasley II, 2002)

Do not be blind to the fact that your students are being compared to students that come from a different demographic. We must be able to mentally take a step back and recognize whether we are doing a service or disservice to our students by comparing apples to oranges. Success is relative.

2. Learning Disability

Children with learning disabilities (including reading disorders) generally do not benefit from repeating a grade, unless they are taught with a different, more specialized approach the second time around. (Balsiger)

While students with learning disabilities or IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) are protected from being held back, be sure to take into account students that have undiagnosed disabilities. For many states, getting a student’s disability identified is a long and drawn out process, with a road block at every turn.

Additionally, what changes will be made to ensure the student’s success? Is there going to be a new teaching approach applied that will make repeating the grade result in a different outcome?

3. Academics

As stated previously, students that have undiagnosed learning disabilities must be considered. Many researches have also reported that the positive gains from retaining a student begin to decline within 2-3 years of retention.

Additional factors to consider about a student’s academic performance include:

-Is the child only struggling in one area?

-What have you (the teacher) done to help the child develop necessary skills?

-Did you collect data with fidelity?

-Have the parents/guardians been notified of possible retention?

-Were resources provided to the parent/guardian to assist with academic achievement?

-How will success be measured to ensure retention was effective?

-What changes will be made to ensure the student’s success?

-Is there going to be a new teaching approach applied that will make repeating the grade result in a different outcome?

-Is one year enough time to get the results you are looking for?

4. Social/Emotional

If threatening your students, privately or publicly, was one of your tactics…then you might want to go ahead and just nix the idea of holding them back. Not only will the child now feel humiliated when they find out they are actually going to remain in the same grade, but, retention is also one of the most powerful predictors of high school drop out rates.

A 2014 study performed by Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrews concluded that kids who repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60% less likely to graduate high school than kids with similar backgrounds, and even 60% less likely to graduate high school than siblings in the same family.

On the contrary, students that are much younger than their grade-level peers or developmentally immature (physically or emotionally) may benefit from repeating a grade. For these students, repeating the grade may reduce stress and allow them time to catch-up. If a student can verbally tell you they believe repeating a grade is in their best interest, this is also another factor to include.

If the student is retained, specific remediation to address the skill and/or behavioral problems needs to be addressed in order to promote achievement, such as:

-Is behavior a factor?

-Is the behavior related to schoolwork?

-How will the student feel about being retained?

-Will the student become more withdrawn from learning if they are retained?

-Will the student’s friendships be affected by retention?

5. Attendance

Simply put, if the student was not in class to learn the information, then they will more than likely be behind. Students with excessive absences and tardies should be carefully considered for retention. It is important to note the reason why the student has been absent from school (illness, relocation, emotional trauma, etc.). Be mindful that students with excessive absences are already at a higher risk for dropping out of school, so repeating a grade will also increase this risk.

6. Research

Last, but surely not least, do your own research! Do not just read one article and assume you have figured it all out. I personally am more against retention than for it, so be sure to listen to both sides of the argument in order to come to a final conclusion. At the end of the day, you must do what is best for the student.

In Conclusion...

I surely hope this article has helped you with the complicated and difficult decision of whether or not to retain your student(s). Please download our Student Readiness Document that can be used to collect your thoughts and findings, while you work towards determining whether a student will go on to the next grade or repeat.

I would love to know your process and what outcomes you have experienced with retaining students. Please leave a comment below or email me your questions/concerns at

Click below to download the Student Readiness Document


Okapala, C. O. (2002). Educational resources, Students Demographics and Achievement Scores. Journal of Education Finance,27(3), 885-908. Retrieved October 22, 2013, from ERIC.

"Demographics, Diversity and K-12 Accountability: The Challenge of Closing the Achievement Gap," with Thomas J. Lasley, II, Education and Urban Society, Volume 34, Number 4, Sage Publication, Thousand Oaks, California, August, 2002.

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