This is the time of year in which parents and school staff start asking whether to retain or socially promote students from all grade levels. We live in a time when there is pressure on schools to produce results on scores for state standardized assessments and performance. Due to this pressure, school staff and parents may express concerns regarding their student not reaching those academic measures. This is a legitimate concern. This legitimate concern causes staff and/or parents to ask whether to retain or socially promote. We all know that each child is unique and with that comes the reality that there is not one answer that fits all. However, there is plenty of research data to guide school staff and parents when making this decision.
In a nutshell, educational research shows retention is not an effective practice; at least not if one looks at long-term results. In fact, there is data in the research to indicate retention may be harmful. For example, retained students are more likely to drop out of high school. This shows that retaining a student does not lead to desired outcomes. However, promoting a student with significant academic deficits is also a concern. Is there an alternative option? What other option is available to parents and staff? Ultimately, what is best for the student?
Years of research recognizes that neither retention nor social promotion helps students who struggle academically. Research has shown that early identification of struggling students as well as research-based, effective interventions greatly assist in developing cognitive and social development in students who are falling behind expectations. NASP (National Association of School Psychologists) encourages schools to utilize well-researched, evidence-based, effective, and responsive strategies in place of retention or social promotion.
This leads us to carefully think about this dilemma. It seems like we need to have a proactive approach versus a reactive approach to students who struggle academically. Implementing school-wide academic and behavior screeners to identify early-on the students who may require targeted interventions, provide intensive academic and behavior interventions with data collection and progress monitoring, and adjust as needed per individual need, may decrease or even prevent the retention-promotion question. This sounds like RtI, doesn’t it? And it is! The idea is to implement this process way before struggles begin through an early identification process, instead of waiting for students to be struggling.
As a former special education teacher and program administrator, I realize the efforts, work, man-power and cost of school-wide academic and behavior screeners for all students. On the other hand, grade retention is also very costly and the benefits are questionable.
As I said earlier, each student is unique and there is no one answer that fits all for the question of retention or social promotion. If retention is the chosen option, then keep in mind that it should be accompanied by an intensive individualized intervention plan and progress monitoring.
National Association of School Psychologists. (2011). Grade retention and social promotion (Position Statement, White Paper). Bethesda, MD: Author.