Grade retention and school completion: A qualitative study of students' perspectives

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Teaching and Leadership


Marilyn Tallerico


Grade retention, School completion, Dropout, Overage students, High school students

Subject Categories

Education | Educational Administration and Supervision | Educational Psychology


There are numerous factors associated with not finishing high school (Mann, 1986). This study focused on one of them: grade retention.

Prior research reveals that dropouts are five times more likely to have been retained than high school graduates, and that a student retained once has a 35 percent chance of dropping out of school (Shepard & Smith, 1989). Historically, grade retention has been a common intervention for students who perform poorly in the classroom. Yet meta-analytic studies reveal that retention in grade does little to improve school achievement or social adjustment (Holmes & Matthews, 1984).

Despite numerous statistical studies, educators still do not fully understand why retained students eventually drop out. Consistent with previous calls for additional qualitative research in this area, I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with retained students who had dropped out prior to graduation from high school.

The specific purpose of this study was to discover the meaning that high school dropouts attributed to their retention experiences. Three broad questions guided this research: (1) What are the perspectives of retained students who leave school prior to graduation? (2) What relationships, if any, exist between grade repeating and dropping out of school? (3) How might students' perspectives inform policy and practices on grade retention?

The interview strategy was selected in order to gather rich, descriptive information in students' own words. I interviewed 24 students from two school districts and one BOCES in the Southern Tier of New York State. All interviewees had dropped out of school in the recent past (that is, since 1989), and all experienced at least one year of retention at some time in grades K-12.

Findings from this study suggest that: (1) Grade retention was a major factor contributing to dropping out. (2) Redundancy, rather than remediation, characterized the retained-grade experience. (3) Both being overage for grade and dropping out of school were painful for students. (4) Schools' failures to make connections alienated some students. (5) A number of institutional practices pushed students out of school.

I conclude that common school policies and practices, as well as students' choices and outside-of-school experiences, both presented obstacles to interviewees' school completion. I recommend areas for future research and discuss implications for educational practice.


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