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Volume 15, Number 1
January/February 1999

Retention vs. Social Promotion

Schools Search for Alternatives


Earlier this year, President Clinton announced that it was time to end social promotion—the practice of promoting students to the next grade regardless of their academic progress. Since then, it has become clear that educators and legislators are listening. California, Delaware, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have all passed laws forbidding the practice, and, in effect, requiring schools to reinstate retention.

This is the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle to address the problem of the failing student. On the one hand, teachers don't want to see a 15-year-old sitting in a 7th-grade classroom. On the other, they don't want to pass a student who is clearly failing. As a result, the pendulum between retention and promotion continues to swing wildly.

"It follows a seven- or eight-year cycle," says retention researcher Lorrie Shepard, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Right now, politicians are seeing retention as the remedy. Once they feel the negative side effects, they'll back off."

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

K. Alexander, D.R. Entwisle, and S. Dauber. On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary Grades. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Chicago Panel on School Policy. "Initiatives Status Report: Summer Bridge." CPSP, 75 East Wacker Drive, Suite 300, Chicago, IL 60601.

O. S. Fashola. Review of Extended Day and After-School Programs and Their Effectiveness. US Department of Education: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, July 1999.

J. Grant. Retention and Its Prevention: Making Informed Decisions About Individual Children. Rosemont, NJ: Modern Learning Press, 1997; 800-627-5867.

G. Gredler. "Book Review: On the Success of Failure." Psychology in the Schools 35, no. 4 (1999): 402-406.

J. Heubert and R. Hauser (eds.), "High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation." Committee on Appropriate Test Use. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999.

C.T. Holmes. "Grade Level Retention Effects: A Meta-Analysis of Research Studies." In Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention. L.A. Shepard and M.L. Smith (eds.), London: Falmer Press, 1989.

A. Reynolds. "Grade Retention and School Adjustment: An Explanatory Analysis." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 14, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 101-121.

L.A. Shepard and M.L. Smith. "Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention." Educational Leadership 47, no. 8 (May 1990): 84-88.

L.A. Shepard and M.L. Smith (eds.), Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention. London: Falmer Press, 1989.