Grade Retention: Helpful or Hurtful?

graduating students

Written by: Ashley Green (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: March 26, 2018

Tens of thousands of students are held back in Texas public schools every year, costing taxpayers more than $384 million. For decades, researchers have investigated whether retention helps or hurts students. For the first time, researchers in the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University have provided the strongest evidence to date that grade retention in the elementary grades hurts students’ chances of graduating high school.

Over the course of 14 years, Dr. Jan N. Hughes, Professor Emeritus, and her colleagues followed 784 Texas school children from first grade until graduating from high school or dropping out of school. The selected students were from schools that demographically represent Texas and are also fairly representative of the United States.

Dr. Hughes and her team sought to answer two questions. Is grade retention an effective educational intervention? Does it increase or decrease a student’s probability of graduating from high school versus dropping out?

While there has been previous research on the effects of grade retention, this research is the first longitudinal study across the entire public school grades that removed the potential effects of a wide range of variables on which retained and promoted students differ, prior to any student being retained. Researchers collected extensive data on the students before any were retained. Then, using a statistical procedure called propensity score analysis, they removed the effects of those variables that are predictive of retention and predictive of subsequent educational performance.

“We found that those children who were retained in the elementary grades were at greater odds of being a drop out than were students who had been continuously promoted from grades one through five,” explained Dr. Hughes. “Importantly, these differences between retained and promoted students in risk of dropping out cannot be explained by differences at baseline – prior to any student being retained. Our results show that retention is a cause of dropping out of school and not merely a correlate of later drop out.”Tweet This.

The costs of grade retention to society and to the retained students are monumental. The per student educational expenditure for public schools in Texas in the 2016-17 school year was $10,360 and more than 37,000 students attending public schools were retained. The cost of the extra year of school during the repeat year is more than $384 million.

Research also shows that high school graduates earn approximately $8,000 more each year than high school dropouts. Dropouts are also more likely to be unemployed, on government assistance or in prison.

This research suggests that the transition to high school is a point of increased risk for dropping out, especially for previously retained students. That is because previously retained students are old for their grade. Typically, retained students turn 16 during or prior to the summer after ninth grade, whereas their peers are just turning 15. In Texas, under certain conditions, students can legally leave school to work full-time or to pursue a GED. With at least four years before graduation, and no guarantee of graduation, many retained students leave school to pursue these options.

“It’s important for Texas to pursue alternatives to grade retention in the early grades. Looking at ninth grade, it’s important for students who are at risk of being retained due to their grades and low motivation to have personalized learning interventions.”

Key elements in successful school reform efforts include more personalized, smaller learning communities for ninth graders, enhanced academic supports for failing students, curricula specifically designed to help students catch up on credits and professional development for teachers.

Another point of concern for Dr. Hughes is Texas’ methods of assigning reasons for leaving school, such as the private or home schooling exemption to the state’s compulsory education law. For example, of the 51 students who dropped out of school prior to age 17 in Dr. Hughes’s study, 12 left school under one of these exemptions and did not return to an accredited school or receive a GED in the following two years. These students are not counted as dropouts in the state evaluation system.

While most schools offer a variety of alternatives for students to catch up on their credits or attend special campuses that offer a more individualized learning experience, not all students take advantage of those options.

“Pressures on public schools in Texas to report low dropout rates may serve as a disincentive for schools to encourage low performing students to select these programs over home or private schooling. Students choosing home or private school do not count as ‘failures’ in the state evaluation of the schools.”


Dr. Hughes’s study has resulted in 53 scientific papers published in top-tier journals that identify how school experiences impact educational attainment. The data from this study are available to other researchers on the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website.

“Researchers I don’t know will be analyzing the data from this 14-year study because the dataset is unique and provides an opportunity for researchers to ask new and important questions about children’s development. I’m hopeful that other researchers will be able to identify some of the intermediate processes that explain why early grade retention impacts high school graduation.”