Grade Retention & Promotion

National initiatives including the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act have been implemented in the United States in an attempt to close the achievement gap that exists between minority and nonminority students. As a result of this Act, school systems began developing standards which students were required to meet in order to advance them to the next grade level. Children who did not meet these standards were retained and asked to repeat their current grade level. On the other hand, those who met the requirements were promoted. Upon its implementation, the number of children held back a grade level increased and each year, over three million children in the United States are retained (Jimerson et al., 2006). Though the practice of grade retention is meant to allow under preforming students to catch up to their peers, some research has suggested there are minimal beneficial effects and in some cases, the practice can be detrimental (Frederick & Hauser, 2008). Research examining retention at the individual level has revealed several harmful effects including lower academic achievement, dropping out of high school, lower likelihood of attending college and earning lower wages (Frederick & Hauser, 2008). Furthermore, retention disproportionately affects minority and economically disadvantaged students (Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, 2008).

Effective Interventions

Some interventions that have been empirically tested and have promising outcomes as alternatives to grade retention and social promotion are:

  • Preschool Intervention Programs: The implementation of programs in preschools designed to foster literacy and socioemotional development as well as non-academic needs such as nutrition and comprehensive family support services (Jimerson et al., 2006). 
  • Early Reading Programs: Literacy skills provide a foundation for many other kinds of learning and early interventions in the area of reading have contributed to higher student success (Jimerson, 2001). One specific program that has shown to be effective involves placing groups of children of the same reading level together for focused reading education time (Jimerson, 2001).
  • Parental Involvement: School-wide programs intended to help teach and support parents through their child’s academic career have proven effective in aiding a child’s academic achievement. The parent’s attitude and involvement in school activities, homework, and routines all have an impact on a child’s performance (Jimerson, 2001).
  • Behavior Modification: Effective strategies in this area can contribute to individual and classroom-wide behavior changes and lead to better performance. Activities to promote self-management of emotions and behaviors can help children feel more in control of their outcomes and encourage healthy and discourage disruptive behaviors (Jimerson, 2001).

Recommendations for Administrators

  • Survey at risk populations in each district and implement empirically based school-wide interventions aimed at helping children academically and psychologically.
  • One such program, Project ACHIEVE was developed by Howie Knoff in 1995 and is made up of 7 components including effective classroom teaching/staff development, behavioral consultation and intervention including problem solving and aggression control training, parent training, tutoring, and support, as well as research and accountability (Jimerson, 2001).
    • This approach is comprehensive and involves many research-based strategies including parent involvement and behavior modification
  • Another program, PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies), focuses primarily on the behavioral concerns aspect of grade retention.  It provides children with skills surrounding self- control, emotion regulation, increasing self-esteem, and social problem-solving (Jimerson, 2001).

Recommendations for Policy Makers

  • Eliminate the use of grade retention and social promotion as a means of addressing lower performing students. Focus instead on early intervention with a focus on literacy and social and emotional development, specifically with regards to parents and families.
  • Fund only empirically supported programs and interventions such as PATHS and Project Achieve
  • Consider the systemic changes that are needed in education and socioeconomics in order to eliminate the achievement gap including economic disadvantages, racial disparities and access to healthcare.

Recommendations for Parents

There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that parent involvement, enthusiasm, and positive attitude surrounding their child’s education has a substantial impact on achievement. Parents should focus their attention primarily on creating an environment that is conducive to learning and doing homework as well as providing support where needed (Jimerson et al., 2006). Due to the large influence of literacy on later academic achievement, parents should provide many opportunities to practice reading and reading comprehension through family discussions. Finally, being attuned to the child’s emotional needs and modeling healthy emotional behaviors such as self-control, anger management, and positive self-esteem can help promote the same behaviors in the classroom (Jimerson et al., 2006).



Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. (2008 Update). Los Angeles, CA: Author

Frederick, C.B., Hauser, R.M. Have we put an end to social promotion? Changes in school progress among children aged 6 to 17 from 1972 to 2005. Demography 45, 719–740 (2008).

Jimerson, S.R. A Synthesis of Grade Retention Research: Looking Backward and Moving Forward. Contemp School Psychol 6, 47–59 (2001).

Jimerson, S. R., Pletcher, S. M. W., Graydon, K., Schnurr, B. L., Nickerson, A. B., & Kundert, D. K. (2006). Beyond grade retention and social promotion: Promoting the social and academic competence of students. Psychology in the Schools, 43(1), 85–97.

Authored by Briana Lopez