Having low-performing elementary students repeat a grade boosts long-term success, new study shows

Grade retention helps students reach higher levels of achievement, new research reveals, defying education establishment claims that repeating grades does more harm than good.


Grade retention helps students reach higher levels of achievement, new research reveals, defying education establishment claims that repeating grades does more harm than good.

Traditionally, public schools have discouraged grade retention due to the belief that it increases the odds of dropping out of high school and harms future career prospects.

But a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, found that repeating a grade can actually help younger students.

The research revealed that holding students back in early grades – specifically grades 3 to 5 – increased middle school test scores, increased likelihood of enrolling in more advanced courses, and reduced the need for further remediation.

These benefits were contingent on having supplemental instruction and supports “that are tailored to the educational needs of retained students.”

One of the reasons early elementary intervention is more successful is that public school education changes radically in 4th grade.

“By fourth grade, children are expected to use reading to learn other subjects,” explains The Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Kids who reach fourth grade without being able to read proficiently are more likely to struggle academically and eventually drop out of school. Low reading proficiency also can reduce earning potential and chances for career success as adults.” 

Similarly, math concepts build on each other, so if a student doesn’t fully grasp elementary concepts, they will struggle to catch up in later grades. 

Nevertheless, a shocking number of 3rd graders are promoted to 4th grade without the necessary skills. 

Nationwide, only 32% of 4th graders read at grade level. Math scores are even worse, with only 35% of 4th graders and 26% of 8th graders scoring at grade level. 

Giving elementary students an extra year to master their reading and math skills can make a huge difference. But the same benefits aren’t found in middle or high school retention. 

Fordham Institute acknowledged that middle school retention isn’t usually effective, leading to less student engagement and higher dropout rates. 

But surprisingly, public schools are holding fewer students back in early grades and more students in later ones. 

In 2016, high school grade retention rates were 2.3%, while K-8 rates were just 1.6%. 

This may indicate that educators don’t want to hold young students back, hoping that they’ll catch up on their own. But if they can’t catch up, intervention in later years won’t do as much good. 

Public schools are also concerned about the financial burden of retaining students, but the Fordham Institute explains that early investment pays off in the long run.  

Students who are at-risk of being held back but are promoted anyway often take longer than four years to graduate high school – costing schools more funding.  

Researchers speculate that stricter retention policies could motivate parents to invest more in their child’s education to avoid being held back. This additional investment could even have a ripple effect on a student’s siblings or among their peer group. 

Nonetheless, schools do need to balance how many students they hold back with their ability to provide adequate supplemental and individualized instruction, Fordham says. Without such instruction, grade retention is unlikely to help students.