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Should We Always Say NO to Retention?

by Pam Wright

Social promotion  never works for anyone.  But is retention always harmful?  If the school is going to give the child extra services which were never given before, wouldn’t retention be a good idea?

We get hundreds of emails about retention every year. I don’t recall one in which the school proposed to provide more intensive services.

Pete and I teach a special education law and advocacy course. One of our law students is typical.

The school proposed to retain his daughter in the 1st grade. The school would not change her program, but said retention would give her “more time to learn 1st grade material.”

When the parents met with school officials and requested that the school evaluate her to determine if she has a learning disability or another problem that is contributing to her reading problems, the school refused to evaluate. On the prior written notice (PWN) was this statement:  “student is making some progress in one-to-one Reading Recovery sessions.”

So they want to retain because:

  • she needs “more time to learn the material”

But they won’t evaluate her because:

  • she is “making some progress”

We know how this story usually ends. Evaluation for special ed in 3rd or 4th grade – reading skills still at the 1st-2nd grade level. Most special ed teachers don’t know how to remediate or don’t have time to provide remediation. So there is a good chance this youngster will become another Shannon Carter, illiterate when she enters 10th grade.

You’ve heard us say before, Reading Recovery is not designed to be used for children who may have a learning disability. There is very little research that supports its use with any population. If a child drops out or is withdrawn, that child is not counted in the success rates. If children make gains in the program, most or all disappear by 3rd grade.

We also get emails that are somewhat pro-retention from parents whose children have more severe disabilities and are very far behind their peers.

I don’t believe in one-size-fits all solutions to problems. I think there are children for whom retention may not be harmful. I also think these kids are a very very small minority.

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16 Comments on "Should We Always Say NO to Retention?"


There is a small population for whom retention can be beneficial: students who are younger than their classmates and also smaller, who have low-average IQ’s, who have no processing deficits, and who have parents who support retention. If the parents do not support it, retention will not work. Our students with learning disabilities must be allowed to advance in grade level with appropriate remedial measures in place. It is appropriate remediation – effective, direct instruction – that will make the difference for our students. Failing to promote students with appropriate supports in place will only add to our problem of being a “drop-out nation.” Yes, retain where appropriate. If you retain a student with learning disabilities who is of comparable age and stature with his grade mates, retention will most likely end in drop-out.


My daughter is in 5th grade with math skills of a 1st or 2nd grader. We have asked about retention every year. From district cuts, large size classrooms, maternity and medical leaves affecting continuity of learning, struggles with teaching to the state test and lack of important curriculum due to principal mandated on-line homework/assessments – writing of weekly blogs, study island assignments, fast math program that crashed and failed on a regular basis, to finding there wasn’t a language arts curriculum being followed in the classrooms. Even with modified work, she still achieves 20% & 0% grades. How can this child keep moving along? She has a Dec b-day & is a little older than her classmates. Socially, she is well liked, but she is much less mature than her peers. Middle school is up next and I cannot imagine her moving on-HELP


I wonder if the perceptions change with the age and grade fo the child. Is Early childhood a good or bad time to retain.

How about a child who had a special ed program for pre-K and team wants to move to less restrictive but teacher and feels moving student to general ed pre-k is a good way to introduce this larger more inclusive setting.

I still think the decision should always stay outside of IEP discussion. It is not an intervention but in some cases it might be a good decision.


This is always a hot topic this time of year and one I seem to be fighting all the time. As a school psych. getting through to people that the “halo” effect of retention will be gone in a year and you are back to where you were now and the child has no had social/emotional issues with being retained as well.

I have ONE student this year who I “might” agree with retention for out of the over 600 that I serve, but the jury is still “out” as I am still gathering information and continuing with some developmental checklists, etc. Our evaluation is not being based on an IQ but on other types of information, such as adaptive skills, school readiness skills, etc. this student is only 5-9 at this time where some kindergarten students are almost 7.


I am a mother to a 4th grader with dyslexia, social anxiety disorder, and selective mutism…I am also a special ed teacher. I was amazed to have her IEP team on my side with possibly retaining her this year. She is also wanting it (she is still reading at a 1st grade level, only has 1 friend-a 2nd grader, and will have to change to the middle school in 5th grade). We just started using Barton at home this year, and we have an appointment to discuss anxiety meds this month. If she gets motivated and shows her teachers she is going to make an effort, than she will probably repeat 4th next year. If she continues to only work with her teacher at her side (she has regressed back to this from last year) then they feel it is pointless to consider. Her therapist even wrote a letter supporting the decision…We must remember they are individuals.