Young children often repeat a grade because teachers and parents feel they have not acquired the appropriate academic or social skills to advance to the next grade level. Some believe that by spending an extra year at the earlier level, children will be able to gain the skills needed for success in the next grade. Much research shows that repeating a grade does not benefit children either academically or socially. Students who repeat a grade continue to have significantly lower scores on standardized tests than their low-scoring peers who were not held back. One study of children who had repeated second grade found that their test scores were very similar to those of students in special education. Children who were retained in early grades were also more likely than other students to later drop out of school., However, subsequent outcomes may be difficult to disentangle from the reasons children were held back in the first place.
For example, grade retention is also associated with children’s socio-emotional difficulties. Some studies have found that children who had repeated a grade, in comparison to matched non-retained students, showed poorer social adjustment, more negative attitudes towards school, more problem behaviors, lower achievement, and less frequent attendance, although other studies have found fewer significant differences.,,, According to one study, the majority of students who were retained in the early elementary grades had not received an individualized education plan (IEP) by fifth grade, a finding that raises a question of whether retained children who may have undiagnosed learning disabilities are receiving the services they need.
Some observers argue against the practice of “social promotion,” or advancing children so they can stay in step with their peers, regardless of academic achievement. One study suggests that social promotion can have negative effects, such as decreased interest in school and reading. Social promotion can result in academic achievement that lags behind grade-level norms, which may increase the likelihood of dropping out. Particularly when children have not acquired basic reading skills by third grade, there is some evidence that retaining them in grade can result in short-term improvements in achievement—and in reducing the likelihood that the student will be retained in a later grade.
In sum, the evidence argues for the importance of early identification of academic difficulties, and evidence-based instructional interventions, both to obviate the need for retention, and to ensure that students who are retained succeed.
Between 1993 and 20012, the percentage of first- through third-graders who had repeated a grade remained steady, at between four and six percent. (Figure 1)
Note: Those children who repeated only kindergarten or who delayed the start of kindergarten are excluded from all of these estimates.
In 2012, Hispanic and black children (at eight and seven percent, respectively) were more likely than white children (at three percent) to have repeated a grade of primary school. (Figure 2)
Children whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree are much less likely than children whose parents have less education to repeat a grade. In 2012, two percent of children with a parent who had a bachelor’s degree or more repeated a grade, compared with five percent of children whose parents completed some college or a technical vocational degree, eight percent of children whose parents received a high school degree or equivalent, and nine percent of children whose parents had a high school degree or less. (Figure 3)
Children living in households receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) or Medicaid are more likely than those from households not receiving those benefits to have ever repeated a grade. (Appendix 1)
First- through third-graders living in the South are more than three times more likely (nine percent) than their counterparts in the Northeast, Midwest, or West to have repeated a grade (between two and three percent). (Figure 4)
2011/12 state estimates for the percentage of children (ages 6-17) who have repeated a grade since starting kindergarten (not since first grade, as in this indicator) are available through the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health.
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) has published grade repetition rates at primary and secondary education levels, for selected countries. See the Global Education Digest 2012.
Schools use several practices, particularly during the early elementary years, to reduce the need for student retention. At a school level, having highly qualified teachers is important, because teacher experience and qualifications are correlated with student performance. Structuring the academic schedule through extended learning time programs so that students have a greater amount of class time in core classes may also lower retention rates, as well as reduce summer learning loss. Alternatives that address individual differences in achievement, such as ensuring that children with disabilities receive special education, implementing early intervention programs, offering multi-age classrooms, encouraging parental involvement, enrolling students in summer school, or increasing preschool attendance, should also be explored.,,,
At a student level, participation in high-quality pre-school or other early learning programs, increased parental involvement with their child’s education, and ensuring that children with disabilities receive special education services, are all ways that may serve to reduce grade retention in the early elementary years. These types of early education programs are especially beneficial for children in low-income families, who are more likely to be retained.
This indicator includes children in first through third grade (or the equivalent if they are home-schooled, etc.).
Parents who answered “yes,” when asked if their children had repeated any grade since first grade are included in these estimates.
original analyses of data from the National
Household Education Surveys.
National Household Education
a high school degree
college/ vocational degree
degree or more
|Native born with native
|Native born with a
foreign born parent
|Primary Language Spoken
in the Home
parents’ main language is English
parent’s main language is not English
parent’s main language is English
|Household income at or
below poverty line
|Household income above
|Received WIC benefits in
the past 12 months
|Did not receive WIC
benefits in the past 12 months
benefits in the past 12 months
|Did not receive
TANF/AFDC benefits in the past 12 months
Medicaid in the past 12 months
receive Medicaid in the past 12 months
|Food Stamp Receipt|
food stamps in the past 12 months
receive food stamps in the past 12 months
inside urbanized area
outside urbanized area
|Rural, not Urban||5.5||3.9||–||5.0||5.0||5.9||7.5||–|
|5 to 9
|10 to 19
percent and more
|Type of School|
|“-” Sample size for these estimates are below 20 and thus do not
provide reliable estimates.Source: Child Trends’ original analyses of National Household
Education Survey data.
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Hispanics may be of any race.
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Last updated: December 2015