Monday / April 22

Grade Retention is Not an Intervention

How We Fail Students When They Are Failing in School

Last week, I was sitting in on a series of meetings between the multidisciplinary Student Assistance Team (involving the Principal, School Psychologist, Counselor, Academic Intervention Specialists, and Special Education teachers) and the respective grade-level teams in its elementary school. The purpose of the meetings was to review the current academic status and progress of every student in the school—including the results of their interim and progress monitoring assessments, attendance, behavior, and related issues.

During the discussions of students not making academic progress, the possibility of retaining these specific students “for another year” continually arose.

Not just a few times, but a lot of times.

Over time, I got the sense that grade retention was one of the available interventions that the teachers and support staff routinely considered. Moreover, when I asked for a description of the “typical” process for retained students the next year, I was told that these students would simply have an opportunity to experience the grade-level academic work for the next, repeated school year all over again. The implicit belief was that these students would be more ready to learn and master this work when given a second chance to experience the curriculum and instruction another time—because they were another year older.

In my experience, this process and belief represents what most elementary schools in the country do when retaining their students.

At the secondary level, retention is related more to a student’s class status or standing. At the high school level, if students do not pass enough courses and credits, then they are “kept back,” and do not graduate to the next year.

Regardless of their class standing, however—if the school schedule permits—they still can take the next course in the sequence of courses they have already passed. For example, while considered a “sophomore” due to total credits earned, a student may still be able to take a junior-level math course if s/he passed the prerequisite sophomore math course.

At the middle school level, grade retention practices typically reflect more of an elementary than a high school approach. Thus, if a 7th grade student does not pass enough courses or attain enough credits, they most often are retained at that 7th grade level—where they have to retake a few courses, even though they passed them the first time.

Retention is Not an Intervention

I want to emphasize that I am not against grade retention. While it is used too often and too indiscriminately, I believe that grade retention should be:

  • Based on a data-based, functional assessment process
  • Where specific strategic instructional or intervention approaches—in the student’s area(s) of weakness—are planfully integrated into the retention year and process
  • Where students continue to receive instruction at their skill or instructional level in their areas of grade-level or above strength (so that they can continue to progress in these areas)
  • Where all of the instructional and intervention strategies and approaches are progressively evaluated on their ability to help the student learn, master, and apply targeted skills

Let’s look at some of the negative outcomes of grade retention.

Negative Outcome #1:  Retention may negatively impact students’ areas of strength.

When students re-take all of their coursework during a retention year, they may be “held back” in curricular areas where they are skilled, and that are not the reason for the retention. For example, consider some 3rd grade students who are functioning a year behind in reading/language arts at the end of the school year, but on grade level in all other academic areas. If these students are retained in 3rd grade and have to take all of their coursework again at the beginning 3rd grade level, they will be receiving a year of wasted instruction in skills areas that they have already mastered. Even if these students were a full year behind in reading/language arts, but only a half-year behind in math, science, and social studies, the first half of the retention year still would be redundant in these latter academic areas.

Solution: While not easy to coordinate, these students need to be taught at their instructional level from the beginning of the retention year so that they can continue to progress naturally in these areas of strength.

Negative Outcome #2: Retention may negatively impact students’ motivation.

There clearly are times when students are working as hard and making as much academic progress as they can. For these students, grade retention significantly impacts their confidence and motivation—and becomes counter-productive. That is, during the retention year, they actually perform even worse than before, and fall even further behind.

For example, consider the students that I call the “8 in 10 Students.” These are students—whether due to “nature” or “nurture”—who are consistently making 8 months of academic progress for every 10 months in school. At some point, the gap between these students’ functional skills and their grade placements become so large that their continued academic progress is challenged. While it may appear logical to retain these students due to their skill gaps, the unintended result may be a hit to their confidence, social status, and motivation. Thus, this academic “intervention” may result in the students emotionally shutting down or behaviorally acting out. Over time, these social, emotional, and behavioral issues may overshadow the original academic issues and social, emotional, or behavioral interventions may become necessary in order for the student to benefit from any concurrent academic interventions.

At the secondary level, this situation is particularly prevalent. Many students in alternative education settings or programs, often have a grade retention in their history.

Solution: Instruction will need to strategically include remediation, accommodation, modification, and assistive supports. The vocational interests of the students also will need to be programmed in, and the students may need five years of high school instead of four years.

However, the five years of high school will not occur due to grade retention. The five years will occur as part of a systematic plan that provides these students the instruction and, as appropriate, vocational and apprenticeship experiences that they need and want so that they learn, master, and are able to apply their academic skills across the curricula.

If schools can help the 8 in 10 Students to maintain their academic progress, these students will graduate, could go to college, and will become productive employees.

Negative Outcome #3: Retention may deny students needed instructional adaptations or interventions.

When schools believe that “retention is an intervention” and when they do not understand the root causes underlying a student’s academic struggles, they may believe that the second opportunity to learn material during the retention year is all that is needed.

However, based on diagnostic assessments completed with students as soon as their academic challenges are evident, it may be that some students need strategically-selected remediation, accommodation, modification, and/or assistive supports in order to learn and master their skills—and that a year of retention will not result in the desired learning or mastery. Moreover, the diagnostic assessments may result in recommendations for specific interventions to address students’ specific learning or skill deficits.

While that may be hard to believe in our “multi-tiered, response-to-intervention” world, I have written previous blog posts and cited U.S. Department of Education-sponsored evaluation studies that have demonstrated that the “national” MTSS/RtI framework is flawed, and that most of the “Tier II” interventions are not based on individual diagnostic assessments.

Solution:  Schools need to complete diagnostic functional assessments to determine the root causes underlying a student’s academic struggles prior to any retention decision. In many cases, these functional assessments should include diagnostic assessment.

Schools should not be using a year of grade retention as an “experiment” or a “data gathering opportunity” to determine students’ need for subsequent functional and/or diagnostic assessments. That is not only inappropriate, it is unethical. What teacher would allow this with their own child?

Negative Outcome #4: Retention may negatively impact students’ potential for high school graduation.

One cumulative negative effect of all of the negative effects above involves student disengagement, school avoidance and truancy, and eventual school drop-out. However, some students stay in high school, but do not graduate.

When graduation is contingent on passing a high-stakes proficiency test alone and when grade retention has substituted for needed remediation, accommodation, modification, and/or assistive supports, we clearly must

A few statistics and realities:

  • 14 states and the District of Columbia have 3rd grade retention policies in place or pending.
  • Nearly 1 million students (2.3% of those enrolled) were retained during the 2009–2010 school year in our country. In our country’s largest 7,000 school districts, more than 141,000 of these students were in kindergarten-3rd grade—26,950 in 3rd grade alone.
  • During the same 2009–2010 school year, 49% of the retained 3rd graders and 56% of the retained 4th grade students in this country were African American—even though less than 20% of the total school population was African American.
  • In all, African American students were nearly 3 times more likely to be retained than Caucasian students. Hispanic students were twice as likely and low SES students were 5 times more likely to be held back.

Another consideration is the financial cost of grade retention.

In 2005, the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University published a Cost-Benefit Analysis of Grade Retention. In making their calculations, they factored in the cost of the retention year itself, along with costs related to: (a) future remedial and special education services; (b) student drop-out resulting in a lower paying job or welfare; (c) health factors and the potential to commit crimes; and (e) having children living in poverty—and renewing the same possible cycle through them.

Let’s use the figure above of 1 million students retained in a single school year, and assume that even 25% of those were appropriate. If you multiply 750,000 students times an estimated $8,000 for the annual cost of educating a student in this country, you would end up with a cost of $6,000,000,000—that is, 6 billion dollars.

While I understand that some of these costs are passive (because more teachers or resources are not necessarily added to deal with a retained student), what if some of this money was used to prevent student underachievement and to address it effectively and early-on when it occurred?


To end where I began:

I am not against grade retention, but when it occurs, it should be:

  • Based on a data-based, functional assessment process
  • Where specific strategic instructional or intervention approaches—in the student’s area(s) of weakness—are planfully integrated into the retention year and process
  • Where students continue to receive instruction at their skill or instructional level in their areas of grade-level or above strength (so that they can continue to progress in these areas)
  • Where all of the instructional and intervention strategies and approaches are progressively evaluated on their ability to help the student learn, master, and apply targeted skills

Retention is not an intervention. It only presents the opportunity for the right instructional or intervention approaches to be presented to a student to help them succeed, but if another year at the same grade level will not benefit a student, it should not be required—and we cannot answer this question until we fully understand the underlying reasons that explain a student’s lack of academic progress.

When educators are confronted by one-size-fits-all policies that are counter-productive to many students’ achievement, we need to question those policies and adapt our practices.

This is about students—not about policies that may be well-intended, but are not student-tested or student-friendly.

Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

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