Retention and literacy: What the research says

This Bell Policy Center issue brief reviews some of the assertions and the research around student retention – holding students back a grade – as a mechanism for improving literacy skills. Retention is one of the important components of House Bill 12-1238.

The brief, Retention and literacy: What the research says, evaluates two assertions that have been made: The research on retention-only policies is mixed, and other states/cities have seen positive results from retention when paired with other support services. ("Retention-only" keeps students in the same grade without additional services or interventions, and "retention-plus" does the same but provides additional help for retained students.)

Melody Maitland, a University of Denver student and a fellow at the Bell, and Dr. Amanda Moreno, associate director of the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy at the University of Denver, found that:

  • Research on retention and its effect on improving literacy is not mixed. Studies consistently found that retention had no effect, had a negative effect or had a positive effect that faded over time, meaning that students were not helped by such policies. In addition, studies found that students who were retained were more likely to drop out of high school.
  • In studies of retention-plus programs, where retention was deemed at least a partial success, students received significant supplemental help. Therefore, it was difficult to assign sole credit to retention when significant additional reading help was such an integral part of a program.

Click here to read the brief