Holding Struggling Students Back Could Jeopardize High School Graduation, Researcher Finds

Increased intervention is more effective than grade retention at giving at-risk students the best chance to graduate.

By Joy Diaz & Laura RiceApril 11, 2018 2:31 pm

Having a student repeat a grade is a fairly common solution for helping struggling learners catch up.

But a study by Dr. Jan Hughes of Texas A&M shows that retaining a student may have drastic long-term effects.

Hughes followed 800 students who were enrolled in first grade for the first time. These students were academically at-risk, as defined by scoring below the 50th percentile on a literacy test at the end of kindergarten or beginning of first grade.

Study results showed that retained students are more likely to not receive a high school diploma after 14 years in school. This rate is 2.67 times higher for retained students than for similar students who were promoted instead.

“We were able to match students who were retained and promoted on those variables that were measured before any of the children had been retained,” Hughes says.  

The decision to retain or promote a struggling student is a multidimensional one. Hughes says a high-quality pre-kindergarten education along with early grade resources for monitoring academic progress are early and key measures for promoting students. This helps educators provide a timely and tailored intervention before struggling students fall further behind – especially for low-income students who represent a large portion of retained students.

Retention aims to give at-risk students an extra year to improve; However, Hughes’ study showed that efforts to prevent students from being in school an extra year are more beneficial on multiple fronts.

“Our findings would suggest give the child extra instructions, more tailored interventions, summer school,” Hughes says. “These kinds of interventions will be more effective and certainly more cost effective.

Even with increased risk, the study showed a majority of retained students do end up walking across the stage to claim their high school diploma. Hughes says increased risk still poses concerns nonetheless.

“But they have an increased risk. And that, we should be concerned about,” Hughes says. “Every child needs to be evaluated on an individual basis with respect to educational decisions such as whether to advance to the next grade.”

Hughes’ study showed students tend to receive a boost of confidence, better social relationships and an overall mastery of the curriculum the year after they are retained. Many teachers see these benefits, and believe there are benefits to retention. But Hughes says there’s more that meets the eye.

“They actually learned less that year than they would have if they had been promoted because they’re not encountering new material,” Hughes says.

Through ninth grade, the study showed retained students performed similarly to promoted students who were similar in grades, social relationships, conduct, motivation and confidence; but many still drop out. This, in turn, is probably an age-related issue. Retained students are turning 16 by the end of the school year, or during the summer after ninth grade, which is when Hughes notices a drop.   

“And that’s when we saw just a huge increase in students leaving school,” Hughes says. “And I think a part of is that at 16 years of age you have some options, you can go to work, they can actually work full time in Texas at age 16.”


Elizabeth Ucles.