ERIC Identifier: ED267899
Publication Date: 1986-00-00
Author: Steiner, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Grade Retention and Promotion.
Many educators advocate that public schools should stress mastery of basic
skills and adopt clear measures of scholastic competence. In many school
districts, children now must pass minimum competency tests in order to progress
from one grade to the next, and children who fail are likely to be retained.
When graded schools began to replace the one-room schoolhouse in the mid-19th
century, students were promoted on "merit," the mastery of an inflexible
academic standard for each grade level. Approximately every other child was
retained at some time during his/her first 8 years of school (Rose and others
Around the l930's, however, changing attitudes toward the role of schooling
and the psychology of the individual student prompted a shift toward an approach
called "social promotion," in which children passed to the next grade with their
age peers, receiving remedial academic help when necessary. Among the reasons
for this policy change was the concern of social scientists that retention might
be damaging to children's social and emotional development.
During the last few decades, opponents of social promotion have argued that
the absence of a fixed academic standard symbolizes a disregard for
achievement--and that this disregard undermines children's motivation to learn.
Consequently, schools have tended to return to promotion based on mastery of
As a result, the number of children retained in grade has increased. For
example, after adopting a pupil-progression plan based on academic mastery, four
times as many Atlanta first graders were retained than previously (Rose and
others l983). Pinellas County, Florida doubled or tripled its normal retention
rate after implementing a competency-based promotion policy (Eligett and Tocco
GRADE RETENTION RESEARCH AND METHODOLOGY
Research on grade retention, focusing on the effects on children's academic
perfomance and on social and personal adjustment, has been inconclusive.
Moreover, methodological problems inherent in the bulk of grade retention
studies may invalidate even those findings (Jackson 1975; Chafe 1984; Labaree
Two of the three types of research designs are biased either for or against
grade retention. The first design, comparing outcomes for retained and promoted
students, favors promotion because it compares students having academic
difficulties with students having fewer problems (as evidenced by their
The second design, comparing retained students before and after their
promotion, is biased in favor of grade retention because it fails to control for
possible improvement resulting from maturational or environmental causes other
than the retention experience itself.
While most studies involve one of these two designs, a third type compares
randomly promoted or retained students, all of whom are experiencing
difficulties. Although this design is the only one that can ensure valid
results, it is used rarely, perhaps because school administrators and educators
are unwilling to assign children to a "second-best" learning situation.
First graders are retained more often than children in other grades (Rose and
others 1983). From first through sixth grade, retention rates decline. They
increase again in the seventh grade and at the high school level.
Such observational data may be helpful in predicting educational trends, but
research has little to say about which children are most likely to benefit from
retention or whether retention is beneficial at all. The decision to retain a
child is based on teacher ratings of social maturity and student performance on
objective achievement tests. However, other factors, such as socioeconomic
level, classroom behavior, and the teacher's educational philosophy, may
influence the retention decision (Plummer and others 1984).
To standardize retention criteria, Light (l977) has developed a scale
including l9 categories of data pertinent to the retention decision. Lieberman
(l980) has generated a similar model which includes child, family, and school
factors. Other observers suggest that important contextual variables for
retention may include personal and home factors (such as the child's
chronological age, social-emotional and physical maturity, and parental
attitudes). School-related factors, such as achievement norms, the approach to
instruction, and the number of previous retentions, may also affect outcomes for
Although evidence fails to support the connection between merit promotion and
student achievement or motivation, there is no proof that such policies are not
related to achievement--and many schools have instituted promotion standards
based on mastery of specific grade-level objectives.
In a survey of five school systems that recently established programs with
raised promotional standards, Labaree (1983a, 1983b) found a variety of
approaches. The most inflexible program, implemented by New York City, requires
that fourth and seventh graders score above a fixed point in the reading portion
of the California Achievement Test for promotion. No other factors are
On the other hand, Milwaukee's promotion policy suggests that retention be
considered, not mandated, for first through third graders who are unable to read
at a set primer level. For fourth through sixth graders, math and language arts
abilities are added to reading ability as possible determining factors. This
program considers a range of variables for retention.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PROGRAM IMPLEMENTATION
Without conclusive research evidence, promotion policies are likely to be
based on social values and philosophical orientations. Labaree (1983b) suggests
the following for decision makers formulating such policies:
--Base eligibility for promotion on multiple measures rather than a single
--Construct measures of achievement that reflect the special character of the
learning process within a given curriculum. (In other words, the best measures
are not always the ones offering the greatest uniformity)
--Formulate in advance a rigorous method of evaluation and the criterion for
success. Contingency plans should be made in case the program does not achieve
--Avoid the tendency to teach only "the basics" or toward a given competency
test. The curriculum should remain varied and challenging
--Include the average child while attempting to raise the level of the
low-achiever. Higher promotional standards should be part of a larger effort to
achieve high achievement for all students
--Stress the quality of instruction for retained pupils. Retention should not
become an end in itself
What matters most is not the specifics of any given promotional policy, but
the overall effectiveness of schools. Policy makers should view retention and
promotion procedures in the larger context of the learning climate and weigh
such factors as inservice training, administrative leadership, curriculum
objectives, and quality of instruction in any decisions.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Chafe, Doug. GRADE RETENTION. RESEARCH, POLICIES, AND DECISION MAKING. l984.
ED 245 349.
Eligett, Jane K., and Thomas S. Tocco. "The Promotion/Retention Policy in
Pinellas County, Florida." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 64 (l983):733-735.
Jackson, Gregg B. "The Research Evidence on the Effects of Grade Retention."
REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 45 (Fall l975):6l3-635.
Labaree, David F. SETTING THE STANDARD: THE CHARACTERISTICS AND CONSEQUENCES
OF ALTERNATIVE STUDENT PROMOTIONAL POLICIES. 1983a. ED 239 368.
Labaree, David F. SETTING THE STANDARD: THE CHARACTERISTICS AND CONSEQUENCES
OF ALTERNATIVE STUDENT PROMOTIONAL POLICIES. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. 1983b. ED 239
Lieberman, L. M. "A Decision-Making Model for In-Grade Retention." JOURNAL OF
LEARNING DISABILITIES 13 (l980):268-272.
Light, H. W. LIGHT'S RETENTION SCALE AND RECORDING FORM. l977. ED 19l 895.
Plummer, Diane, Marilyn Hazzard Lineberger, and William Graziano. THE
ACADEMIC AND SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES OF GRADE RETENTION: A CONVERGENT ANALYSIS.
l984. ED 247 033.
Rose, Janet S., Frederic J. Medway, V. L. Cantrell, and Susan H. Marus. "A
Fresh Look at the Retention--Promotion Controversy." JOURNAL OF SCHOOL
PSYCHOLOGY 2l (l983):20l-211.