Should We Retain Kids to Raise Reading Achievement? Part II

  • 10 June, 2013

Blast from the Past: This entry first appeared June 10, 2013 and was reposted on May 1, 2021. This two-part blog entry argued against the primary grade retention policies that many states were adopting at that time. I provided both an analysis of the research that retention proponents were relying on and the highlights of the extensive body of research on retention that they were ignoring. Neither the outcomes of policy initiatives nor new research over the past 8 years have changed my thinking. However, what makes this informaton timely is the COVID pandemic. Data so far suggest that our boys and girls are going to be lagging behind for the foreseeable future because of the reduction in instruction they have suffered. As schools reopen and things get back to normal, this wreckage will be more obvious, as will the need for enhancements to our instructional efforts. What won't be needed will be more retention and I fear, given the policies now in place, many children are likely to be confronted with that unfortunate and ineffective possibility. This would be a great time for states to suspend their retention requirements at least until things really are back to normal for our kids. 

In my last entry ( I was asked whether it was acceptable to retain special education students. My response was that I had always opposed such retention based on an extensive body of research (some of which is listed below). However, I also admitted that the most recent research, relatively high quality research, was finding positive results for test-based retention in Florida. In that blog, I reported on two regression discontinuity studies (this is the closest design to a full-blown control-trial experimental study) that had found positive and long-lasting results for early retention.

            In this entry I want to explore my concerns.

            Why is this working in Florida when it hasn't worked elsewhere? The most serious problem with these new studies, as carefully done as they are, is that they were unable to isolate the accountability part of the reforms from the rest of Florida's education policies.

            Florida did more than just flunk kids: they did a great job of ensuring that classrooms across the state were beefing up their teaching of phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency, and they made sure there were ongoing interventions available to struggling readers. They provided substantial coaching and other professional development for their teachers, and supported extensive summer school and afterschool programs. Yes, these kids were given an extra year of teaching, and yet this extra year was more likely be worth having than what is usually provided to retained students.

            Florida did more than retain kids: they ensured that those students got the necessary instruction to make real progress. Too often kids are flunked into classrooms no better than the ones they failed in and with no additional supports or resources.

            I suspect that your administrators are convinced by these studies that retention can and will be good for kids. And, yet, are they being as scrupulous to make sure that the extra year of teaching is this positive? If not, my bet would be that it won't be as beneficial.

            There is one additional concern about this and it is detailed in the following Brookings analysis.

            Although early retention may seem to give kids the time needed to master the academic content, there is another potential problem darkly lurking in the wings: the older that students are when they enter high school, the more likely they will drop out. Retain kids for a year and you increase their chances of becoming a high school dropout; flunk them twice and it is almost guaranteed that they won’t finish. Thus, we could be addressing one problem while creating a second at least as serious. Of course, it's possible Florida students won't follow this past pattern—policies have been changing as to when students can leave school, and, if they are really benefiting from retention, as these studies suggest, then these later problems might not manifest themselves as in the past. Unfortunately, no one knows the answer to that. 

Some Past Research on Retention

Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., Dauber, S. L. (1994). On the success of failure. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, G. B. (1975). The research evidence on grade retention. Review of Educational Research, 45, 613-635.

Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade-retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30, 420-437.

Jimerson, S. R., Anderson, G. E., Whipple, A. D. (2002). Winning the battle and losing the war: Examining the relation between grade retention and dropping out of high school. Psychology in the Schools, 39, 441-457.

Karweit, N. (1992). Retention policy. In M. Alkin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Research (pp. 114-118). New York: Macmillan.

Karweit, N. (1999). Grade retention: Prevalence, timing, and effects. Report No. 33. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research on the Education Students Placed At Risk.

Reynolds, A. (1992). Grade retention and school adjustment: An exploratory analysis. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 14, 101-121.

Roderick, M. (1994). Grade retention and school dropout: Investigating the association. American Educational Research Journal, 31, 729-759.

Shepard, L. A. (1994). Grade repeating. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed.). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (1987). Effects of kindergarten retention at the end of first grade. Psychology in the Schools, 24, 346-357.

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (1989). Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention. London: Falmer Press.

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (1990). Synthesis of research on grade retention. Educational Leadership, 47, 84-88.

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (1996). Failed evidence on grade retention. Psychology in the Schools, 33, 251-261.

Shepard, L. A., Smith, M. L., & Marion, S. F. (1998). On the success of failure: A rejoinder to Alexander. Psychology in the Schools, 35, 404-406.

Smith, M.L., & Shepard, L. A. (1987). What doesn’t work: Explaining policies of retention  in early grade. Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 129-134.




See what others have to say about this topic.

Margo Singleton May 02, 2021 12:35 AM

Good Evening,
As I write these thoughts, I am at school preparing for next week. I have decided to spend the rest of this year focusing on Reading.
I found your blog interesting and I agree with what Florida did to ensure their students had the best possible chance to excel and succeed. Unfortunately, I don't believe we have the resources to allow us to mirror Florida's efforts. I was held back and I know that it is demeaning. The stats speak for themselves.

My plan is to focus on Reading. If it were my call, I would have mandatory summer school this year for Reading. All students who do not test at grade level will have the benefit of sustained and focused time in Reading. The staff who have the skills and competencies would be used to bolster phonics and foundational skills- then read, read, read. The demographic in our community has not demonstrated a committed focus on reading at home. We must teach the skills and put in the reading time.

Kelly O'Donnell May 02, 2021 10:21 AM

Dr. Shanahan,
I am writing not so much to speak to retention, but to a different "solution" to the delays in our student's academic achievement - special eduaction referrals for specific learning disabilities. I hold that there is a vast difference between understanding a field and actual practice. I am a school psych, and am frustrated by the lack of systemic conceptualization of a problem leading to reactionary measures that lower the bar to satisfy adult-driven decisions. Don't even get me going on the current use of standardized instruments and manipulation of progress monitoring procedures/data to make high-stakes eligibility decisions (including our own department of public instruction). The referrals are advancing in number and I suspect the beginning of next school year will bring a significant increase in special ed referrals. I am a tiny voice without impact. Do you have blog posts that address this topic? I myself would enjoy links to relevant research. I am well aware of the need for nuanced decision making and in no way looking to dissuade support for specially designed instruction. I am seeking to broaden our thought on disabiity-related need versus the deep impact of Covid-19 on provision of instruction and current instructional practice.

Timothy Shanahan May 02, 2021 07:06 PM


You are correct that it is important to increase the amount of reading instruction for these students. Summer school is one important one. So are after school programs, and tutoring opportunities. However, don't underestimate the importance of teacher knowledge in delivering something like phonics instruction (you can't easily just have all the teachers teach literacy -- unless they are well prepared to teach literacy).



Timothy Shanahan May 02, 2021 07:09 PM


The key to preventing or reducing the number of referrals is to make the most of the classroom instructional time. Teachers have been found to vary by as much as 100% in the amount of time devoted to sound reading instruction. It is important that all key aspects of reading be taught and that isn't always the case. You might find this link useful.



Wim Van den Broeck May 08, 2021 10:23 AM

See my article:

Wim Van den Broeck May 08, 2021 10:23 AM

See my article:

Timothy Shanahan May 08, 2021 05:59 PM


Thanks for this article. I'm curious about how the circumstances in your country match up with those in mine. For example, a fairly consistent finding here is that retention (whatever its impacts on learning) leads to a higher rate of dropping out of school later on (basically, the older the student is when he/she reaches 11th grade, the more likely the student doesn't complete high school? Is that true in Belgium, too, and if not, do you have any idea why there would be such a difference?



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Should We Retain Kids to Raise Reading Achievement? Part II


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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