Reading Retention Literature Survey

Grade Retention or Intervention?
Best Practices in Elementary School Reading – A Survey of Recent Studies & Literature


A near-consensus exists among education experts that early grade retention should, at most, be used as a last resort and is detrimental to the long-term learning, social and psychological growth, and future employment opportunities of the student.

Reading standards programs both at state and national levels (e.g., No Child Left Behind) have placed considerable pressure on schools to retain children in order to raise their test scores. The short-term benefits are apparent as students on average do achieve higher reading levels when they repeat an early grade (K-3), and this spike in reading scores may remain valid for several years. From a short-term perspective, the efficacy of grade retention seems obvious.

This increase in scores, however, dissipates rapidly, usually within 2-3 years. Yet longitudinal studies clearly show a decrease in scores when compared to equally low-performing youth who were not held back. Furthermore, retained children also show a long-term increase in dropout rate, lower likelihood to attend college, and higher incidence of depression and likelihood of incarceration. These costs, along with the cost of keeping a student in school a year longer, strain budgets while producing results contrary to those anticipated-higher long term performance of the child and better entry into the workforce and higher education.

Adding fuel to this fire, low test performance is far from the only predictor of retention. Among equally low-performing students, those retained are more likely to be male, Latino, and come from a more financially challenged household with lower IQ parents. Not only does retention generally not achieve what it sets out to do – in fact, achieving the opposite – but it targets students based on demographics that have nothing to do with academic ability.

Intervention measures, on the other hand, have consistently proven to enhance long term performance, socialization, and employability when approached not as a single, quick fix engagement, but rather by using a variety of tools in tandem and across social networks that include peers, parents, teachers, principals and others. These strategies are detailed in the accompanying literature and synopses and include: programs in early reading, direct instruction, behavior modification, summer school, and outreach for great parent involvement as well as coordination of these activities by entities such as school counselors.

10 targeted summaries on this topic with links to recent source material:

  1. “On the Failure of Failure: Examining the Association Between Early Grade Retention and Education and Employment Outcomes During Late Adolescence”
  2. “10 Strategies to Fight Mandatory Retention & Other Damaging Policies”
  3. “Test-Based Grade Retention: Does It Stand Up to Professional Standards for Fair and Appropriate Use”
  4. “Depression and Self-Concept: Personality Traits or Coping Styles in Reaction to School Retention of Hispanic Adolescents”
  5. “Trajectories of Math and Reading Achievement in Low-Achieving Children in Elementary School: Effects of Early and Later Retention in Grade”
  6. “Reading Policy in the Era of Accountability”
  7. “Early Grade Retention and Student Success: Evidence from Los Angeles”
  8. “Reading, writing, and retention: A primer on grade retention research”
  9. “Response to Intervention: An Opportunity for School Counselor Leadership”
  10. “Grade Retention and Promotion: Information and Strategies for Educators” by Shane R. Jimerson et al, Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators”

Prepared by Bryan Lindenberger
Researcher at the Center for Research and Outreach, Staff
College of Education
New Mexico State University