Alternatives to Grade Retention

“No social promotion!” is the latest sound-bite of reform. But if the goal is to improve classroom learning, other strategies make more sense.

By Linda Darling-Hammond

One study found that children fear being held back so much that they cite it third on their list of anxieties, after blindness and death of a parent.

When policy makers urge that students be held accountable for low achievement, they frequently call for grade retention and the withholding of diplomas. The assumption is that consequences will motivate children to achieve, and if they do not, the low-performing students should just keep repeating the material until they get it right.

Yet dozens of studies have found that retaining students actually contributes to greater academic failure, higher levels of dropping out, and greater behavioral difficulties. Students who are held back actually do worse in the long run than comparable students who are promoted, in part perhaps because they do not receive better or more appropriate teaching when they are retained, and in part because they give up on themselves as learners.

New York City’s Promotional Gates Program, ultimately discontinued in the late 1980s, resulted in 12-year-olds stuck in the 4th grade and 17-year-olds sitting in 8th-grade classrooms.

Even small children perceive that being held back is a stigma. One study found that children fear grade retention so much that they cite it No. 3 on their list of anxieties, following only the fear of blindness and death of a parent. As Lorrie Shepard, a professor at the University of Colorado, concluded in her review of the research: “Contrary to popular beliefs, repeating a grade does not help students gain ground academically and has a negative impact on social adjustment and self-esteem.”

In their book, The Closing Door: Conservative Policy and Black Opportunity, Gary Orfield and Carole Ashkinaze noted the grade retention policies of the 1980s accountability era: “Although most of the reforms were popular, the policy-makers and educators simply ignored a large body of research showing that they would not produce academic gains and would increase dropout rates. In other words, this was a policy with no probable educational benefits and large costs. The benefits were political and the costs were borne by at-risk students. The damage was psychological as well as educational, increasing the likelihood that at-risk students would drop out before receiving their diplomas; school districts were also hurt by the diversion of resources to repetitive years of education for many students.”


The premise of grade retention as a solution for poor performance is that the problem, if there is one, resides in the child rather than in the schooling he or she has encountered. Instead of looking carefully at classroom or school practices, schools typically send students back to repeat the same experience. Little is done to ensure that the experience will be either more appropriate for the individual child or of higher quality. This is particularly troubling given mounting evidence that children’s unequal access to high-quality curriculum and teaching is strongly related to their achievement.

Not only have recent studies found that teacher expertise is by far the single most important determinant of student performance, but low-income, minority, and special-needs students are least likely to receive well-qualified, highly effective teachers. Tracking systems often heighten these effects by assigning the least-qualified teachers to the lowest-achieving students year after year.

However, the negative effects of grade retention should not become an argument for social promotion — that is, the practice of moving students through the system without ensuring they acquire the skills they need. If neither retention nor social promotion is effective, what are the alternatives?

There are at least four complementary strategies school administrators can employ:

  1. Enhancing professional development for teachers to ensure that they have the knowledge and skills they need to teach a wider range of students to meet the standards;
  2. Redesigning school structures to support more intensive learning;
  3. Ensuring that targeted supports and services are available for students when they are needed; and
  4. Employing classroom assessments that better inform teaching.


Highly skilled teachers who know how to use a wide range of successful teaching strategies adapted to diverse learners are, of course, the most important alternative to grade retention. Teaching that is developmentally, cognitively, and culturally responsive enables a greater range of students to succeed.

As discussed in the National Commission on Teacher’s latest report “Doing What Matters Most,” teacher expertise has been found to be the most significant determinant of student success, accounting for as much as 40% of the difference in overall student performance. Students who have highly effective teachers three years in a row score as much as 50 percentile points higher on achievement tests than those who have ineffective teachers for three years in a row. Several studies have found that the disparities in achievement between Black and white students are largely a function of differences in the qualifications of the teachers they are assigned.

Unfortunately, many veteran teachers were not trained to meet many of today’s expectations for the teaching of reading, mathematics, and other subjects. They have no preparation for teaching students with learning disabilities or those whose first language is not English. They were not taught about how people learn or how to support learning of different kinds.

While newly prepared teachers often have had more access to this knowledge, many new teachers are hired who have had little or no teacher training. In 1994, nearly 25% of newly hired teachers lacked full preparation for their jobs. The proportions were higher in many urban and poor rural schools with large concentrations of low-income and minority students. Neither standards nor assessments can help students achieve if they do not have competent teachers to support them in their learning.

School districts should make every effort to hire well-prepared teachers who understand content, teaching methods and learning; provide novices (who often teach the neediest students) with expert mentors; and provide systematic supports for ongoing professional development. Such opportunities should give teachers sustained opportunities — not just hit-and-run workshops — for learning about successful teaching strategies aimed at the new standards. This requires scheduled time for teachers to study and plan together, to learn about effective strategies, to examine curriculum and student work, to observe good practice, and to give and receive coaching.

In addition, individual teachers may need opportunities for different kinds of learning — about content, teaching strategies, special learning needs, and curriculum — that are unique to their needs. School leaders should develop institutes, teacher academies, teacher networks, professional development laboratories, expert consulting arrangements, university offerings, and associated incentives that support individual and collective teacher learning.


Teaching strategies that address differences in how students learn while aiming for common high standards often require organizational changes that provide more extended contact between teachers and students.

When age grading was adopted from the Prussian educational system nearly a century ago, it seemed an efficient way to structure teachers’ work, to apply sequential curriculum guides, and to move students through a more tightly specified system. However, as it was implemented, the practice of age grading had two negative side effects:

  • It reduced the time individual teachers spent with groups of students and hence their ability to come to know those students well; and
  • It reduced the opportunities for older, more competent peers to help socialize and assist their younger colleagues, thus removing a potent teaching resource from the classroom.

Recent research has found that students experience much greater success in schools structured to create close, sustained relationships among students and teachers. In high-achieving countries like Japan, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, teachers often stay with the same students for two or more years and teach them more than one subject.

Teachers are more effective when they know students well, when they understand how their students learn, and when they have enough time with students to accomplish their goals. Studies in the United States have found that small schools and those that personalize instruction by keeping the same teachers with the same students for extended periods of time have fewer behavior problems and higher achievement than very large schools with highly departmentalized structures in which students move continuously from one teacher to another.

Personalization and more intensive instruction are achieved by lengthening class periods and by allowing teachers to teach the same students for more than one

year and/or to teach a core curriculum to one or two groups of students rather than a single subject to five groups. Advisory structures in which one adult is responsible for advising a small group of students over a period of years are also associated with increased success.

When taught by skillful teachers, classes that include students of different ages and grades can provide structures that do not penalize students for their natural variations in learning styles, paces, and performances. Particularly in the elementary years, when the range of development among students is most uneven, multi-grade classrooms in which students stay with the same teacher and cohort of peers for more than one year enhance learning by ensuring that students are better known and better supported.

In many schools, the use of multi-age classrooms has eliminated the need for grade retention, as teachers have learned to support student development over the longer term.

Studies show that children in multi-age classrooms show academic progress over time that equals or exceeds that of their peers in same-age classrooms. They also exhibit better self-concepts, improved attitudes toward school, and a general improvement in social abilities, demonstrating more cooperation, and less aggression and competitiveness than students in age-segregated classes. Teachers get to know individual children and families better because of the longer time they spend together. Younger children learn routines and receive help from older children, who reinforce their own learning and develop greater responsibility in the process. Children also benefit from the consistency in the environment from year to year, that frees up their energies for academic work.


Census Bureau data show that in 1995, more than a third of children with learning disabilities had repeated at least one grade in school. However, research suggests that most were not helped and many were harmed by this solution to their problems. While there is a growing consensus that the last decade’s approaches to the provision of special education and other categorical services have become problematic, appropriately targeted services are still needed for many students.

Serious efforts are needed to correct the flawed identification practices, fragmented and ineffective service delivery models, and undertraining of personnel that leave many special-needs children in low-quality settings with watered-down curriculum.

However, there are circumstances in which individual students have special learning needs that are not well-addressed in regular classroom settings. For every horror story about inappropriate placement and teaching, there are success stories about students who were helped to learn by special services that were well targeted to their specific learning needs and delivered by well-prepared teachers with the necessary skills.

For the estimated 10-20% of students who have visual/perceptual disabilities similar to dyslexia, for example, such specific assistance is essential to success through-out the school career. In addition, most students who are identified as failing in the early grades are struggling in the area of literacy development, which is a key to school success from the first years on.

Programs like Reading Recovery and Success for All include one-to-one assistance models in which specially trained teachers work intensely with students in the early grades who are having difficulty learning to read. Both have been found to be effective in helping students gain the skills that make them successful and confident readers, including students whose first language is not English and many who are or would otherwise have been identified for special education.

Students who are falling behind can be helped by extra time routinely provided each day after school (some schools build extra-help periods into teachers’ and students’ schedules), by resource room teachers and trained student or adult tutors, and by Saturday school or summer school.

The key is that these opportunities — unlike most uses of summer school, Saturday school or resource rooms — must be readily and routinely available to all students as soon as they need help. They must also be linked directly to the current work they are doing in the classroom, and must offer them help from individuals who understand both the content and skills the teacher is trying to pursue and the nature of the difficulty the student is experiencing.


Ensuring that students get the specific help they need requires rich information about what they know and can do, as well as how they learn. Assessments that give detailed information about students’ approaches to learning as well as about their levels of performance can determine how students can be helped most successfully, rather than merely whether they will be held back or passed on.

Unfortunately, standardized tests that rely on multiple-choice formats give little information about the learning process or students’ abilities to produce analyses or products. Consequently, many educators are developing assessments that engage students in performance tasks that reflect standards in a given field, such as essay examinations, oral presentations, problem-solving exercises, research projects, and collections of work, as well as systematic teacher observations.

Many educators who use these kinds of performance assessments confirm that such assessments provide information about how students think, what they understand, and the strategies they use in their learning. As experience with new assessments in Vermont, Maine, and Kentucky suggest, the information they provide also can be shared with students, families, and communities to apprise them of progress and achievement, and it can be passed along to future teachers to ensure greater continuity in learning.

The diagnostic teaching that this enables future teachers to undertake is the strongest argument for new standards and assessments: the creation of a system that is attentive to what students have learned and is responsive to their learning needs. That would constitute genuine accountability.

Linda Darling-Hammond a professor of teaching and teacher education at Stanford University.

This article is condensed from an article in the August 1998 issue of The School Administrator. Reprinted with permission.