Brief Articles

Prevention Corner

Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph.D.
Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph.D.

Should Students be Retained or Socially Promoted When They are Failing Academically?

Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph. D.

School questions seem to dominate our list of concerns once again. Parents, teachers, and school psychologists seem to be seeking answers to the age old question: should students be retained in the same grade for another year when they have failing grades? We actually received several letters asking if retention is psychologically safe. Our question is from a school psychologist who is grappling with this very question.

Editorial Question Posed

Dear Prevention Corner: 

I’m a school psychologist assigned the task of deciding whether children should be retained or socially promoted. Teachers make a recommendation based on student grades. After testing, I must recommend which students should be retained or socially promoted. I just read an article that said 78% of dropouts were once retained a grade in school and that 90% of students retained more than once drop out of school. Is this true?

I’m Confused


Dear Confused:

You are not the only one. The question of retention has been argued for over 40 years. Since 1975, research and statistical analysis has shown that neither grade retention (repeating a grade) nor social promotion (simply moving on to the next grade) has been effective as a method for improving academic achievement. Jimerson’s landmark study in 2001 contains one of the best overall discussions. I’ve listed the citation in the reference section. Although grade retention is still widely practiced in schools, retention is actually listed as the single most dominant predictor of whether a student will drop out of school (Thomas, 2013). You did not list the title of the article that you had read, but the statistics match commonly accepted predictions. Retention has a “scarring effect” (Andrew, 2014). Retention is a stigmatizing negative event that infuses with development across the life span—from early elementary school to college and even into adulthood (Andrew, 2014; Jimerson & Kaufman, 2003). So yes, retention is something that we as psychologists should be concerned about. It is not simply an educational problem. Students list retention as one of the most stressful events of their life (Anderson et al, 2005). The stress and stigmatization of retention and failure can even pave the way for other mental health problems and also lead to behavioral problems. Furthermore, research shows that retention is not effective. It does not help students correct their academic problems (Thomas, 2013).

Retention has not worked. Social promotion also does not work. The National Center on Response to Intervention (2010) suggests three strategies that have proven to work with students who are failing: (1) early intervention (do not wait until the child is failing), (2) customizing learning to individual student needs, and (3) focus on reading. They go on to say that the most prominent academic problem leading to failure and retention is reading failure (NCRI, 2010; Lyon, 2002). Jimerson’s research (2003) concurs with the National Center’s three suggestions and also states that improving reading skills should be listed as one of the most important variables needed for academic success.

The Monitor on Psychology this month (March, 2016) reported that reading proficiency scores for public school children have dropped. We should also be alarmed that for the past 25 years, nationwide testing has shown that over half the children and teens across the nation cannot read at grade level by 4th or 8th grade. The Nation’s Report Card for 2015 stated that only 36% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders across the nation can read proficiently at grade level. When we tie reading failure to retention and to dropping out of school before graduation, we truly have a serious problem.

As we have stated in this column many times before, reading failure can also lead to depression and other mental health concerns (Herman et al., 2008). Reading failure becomes a psychological problem because of the stigmatization, mental health concerns, and developmental damage caused by such failure across the life span. Reading failure in not just an educational problem; it is a psychological problem as well.

You are very wise to seek alternatives to retention. A six-year-old student was assigned to my reading clinic at the beginning of first grade as an early preventive intervention. He lived in a low socioeconomic neighborhood, single-parent home, and seemed to be having trouble adjusting to school. By the end of his first grade year, the student was reading at the third grade level and demonstrating exemplary behavior– very cooperative, very hard-working. When he returned to school at the beginning of the nest year (He should have been entering 2nd grade.), the parent was informed that the student had been retained in first grade because of his attendance record. The school had a policy of retaining all students who missed more than a certain number of days. Obviously, this was a schoolwide policy and an attempt to reduce truancy. Unfortunately, no one checked to see why the student had been absent. The student had asthma. Even with extensive absences, including at my program, the student was able to finish first grade reading at the third grade level. Math wasn’t a problem either. The student was returned to my reading clinic while repeating first-grade because of behavior problems. In talking with the student, he said, “Need something to do. Only have ‘baby books.’ Little kids think I’m funny when I get in trouble.”

Retention can and does cause psychological “scarring.” So, what is the alternative?

Homework does not help students improve academically (Cooper, 2006). After-school programs have proven to not be effective, especially homework based programs or programs that simply repeat teaching methods used in the classroom (Sheldon et al., 2010; Shernoff, 2010). Merely incorporating social and emotional learning principles is also not effective (Kaufman et al., 2014). Some educators have even gone so far as to say that failure is based on the socio-economic neighborhood in which the child lives (Plucker & Esping, 2014). I disagree.

This fall, from September to December, we had four students move up an entire grade level in reading at my reading clinic. Three of these students were from low socio-economic neighborhoods. Two were African American and one student in the group was Hispanic. This is not a one-time occurrence. Previously, we had six students move up two entire grade levels during nine months in the program. All six students were from low socio-economic neighborhoods: one Caucasian and five African Americans. Two of the students lived in a housing project neighborhood. As G. Reid Lyon said back in 1998, ineffective teaching methods are the primary cause of reading failure. No, I did not say teachers. I said teaching methods—the method that we are using to teach children to read. Whole language and old style phonics rules have both proven not to work (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Are there methods that work? Yes. In 2009, Keller and Just proved that at-risk readers can be taught to read through their neuroimaging studies. Shaywitz (2003) put forth an entire program for teaching dyslexic children. Shaywitz (2003) says that the key to teaching reading to any child is that you must teach the child to break the word down into letters sounds or phonemes. Then, teach the child to put the sounds back together as a word. I teach a similar method called vowel clustering (Clanton Harpine, 2011; 2013).

So yes, methods are available that have been proven to work. Why do we not use them in the schools? That is an excellent question. I’ll leave that question for another time. For now, I hope that you will refer to some of the references that I have listed for you. I hope that some of the programs can help you to look beyond retention and social promotion. Look to the source of the problem—reading failure.

If you would like to join this discussion, let us hear from you. We welcome your participation. We invite psychologists, counselors, prevention programmers, graduate students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other mental health practitioners working with groups to network together, share ideas, problems, and become more involved. Please send comments, questions, and group prevention concerns to Elaine Clanton Harpine at


Anderson, G. E., Jimerson, S. R., & Whipple, A. D. (2005). ‘Students’ ratings of stressful experiences at home and school: Loss of a parent and grade retention as superlative stressors, Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21(1), 1-20.

Andrew, M. (2014). The scarring effects of primary-grade retention? A study of cumulative advantage in the educational career. Social Forces, 93, 653-685.   doi: 10.1093/sf/sou074

Clanton Harpine, E. (2011). Group-Centered Prevention Programs for At-Risk Students. New York: Springer.

Clanton Harpine, E. (2013). After-school prevention programs for at-risk students: Promoting engagement and academic success. New York: Springer.

Herman, K. C., Lambert, S. F., Reinke, W. M., & Ialongo, N. S. (2008). Low academic competence in first grade as a risk factor for depressive cognitions and symptoms in middle school. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 400-410.

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., & Kaufman, A. M. (2003). Reading, writing, and retention: A primer on grade retention research. Reading Teacher 56, 622-635.

Keller, T., A., & Just, M. A. (2009). Altering cortical connectivity: Remediation-induced           changes in the white matter of poor readers. Neuron 64, 624-631.

Lyon, G. R. (April 28, 1998). Overview of reading and literacy initiatives. Testimony before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Senate Dirkson Building. Retrieved November 27, 2006, from

Lyon, G. R. (2002). Reading development, reading difficulties, and reading instruction educational and public health issues. Journal of School Psychology, 40, 3-6.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2013). Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2013. Retrieved from report card/pdf/main2013/2010458.pdf

National Center on Response to Intervention. (March 2010). Essential components of RTI: A closer look at response to intervention.   Washington, DC: US Department of Education, office of Special Education Programs

National Reading Panel, (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Plucker, J., & Esping, A. (2014). Intelligence 101. New York: Springer.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.

Thomas, A. (Ed.) (2013). Retention is not the answer! Metairie, LA: Center for Development and Learning.