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Nationwide Grade-Retention Rates Have Dropped, New Study Finds

By guest blogger Madeline Will 

The practice of requiring students who don't make sufficient academic progress to repeat a grade in school has steadily declined from 2005 to 2010, new research shows. 

The study on grade retention was published today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. Researchers tracked nationwide retention trends in 1st through 9th grades, from 1995 through 2010. 

The overall retention rate peaked in the 2004-05 school year at 2.9 percent, but by 2009-10, the rate was nearly halved, falling to 1.5 percent. The retention rate fell for all groups of students, and decreases were strongest in groups that used to have the highest retention rates, including boys and minority students. 

"Grade retention may have substantial positive or negative consequences for a student's future academic achievement," said one of the study's authors, the University of Minnesota's John Robert Warren. "Given its cost for schools and its potential impact for students, practitioners and policymakers have had surprisingly little information about how often students are made to repeat grades."

Across the course of the study's data, school years 1994-95 to 2009-10, a total of 2.4 percent of all students repeated a grade. First graders repeated a grade most often—6.2 percent. Ninth graders had the second-highest grade-retention rate, at 2.9 percent. Retention rates were higher among boys, minority students, immigrants, children with less-educated parents, children with single parents, urban children, and children in Southern and Northeastern states. 

Warren said the drop could possibly be related to earlier research that found mixed evidence that retention leads to more learning—but consistent evidence that it leads to higher dropout rates.

The practice of grade retention has been controversial. Research shows that retention has negative effects on students, but "social promotion," or the practice of passing failing students onto the next grade, has been sharply criticized, including by President Barack Obama. This Hechinger Report article delves into the debate and controversy surrounding grade retention. 

No federal agency, including the National Center for Education Statistics, or private foundation regularly keeps track of grade-retention rates. Some states do report their own rates, but for this study, the authors used data from the Current Population Survey (conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics), which has gathered information about school enrollment since 1995.

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