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Second Time Around

Susan Notes: This report is fine--as far as it goes. But when are we going to admit that some children will not be "on grade level," no matter what we do? Sure, offer advice about this and that kind of instruction. But when all is said and done, some children won't be "on grade level." And even so, they shouldn't be retained. All this posturing that learning is divided into grade levels that are more important than everything else we know about children has got to stop. But we've let the other guys steal the argument and now we're arguing on their terms, afraid to speak up for the child.

Making students repeat a grade hasn't worked for 100 years, so why is it still happening? And why do government officials, school leaders, and teachers persist in recommending retention as a remedy for low student achievement -- even when researchers call it a failed intervention?

Linda Darling-Hammond, executive director of Columbia University's National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, has a one-word answer: assumptions. Many schools, she says, operate on the assumption that failing students motivates them to try harder, gives them another chance to "get it right," and raises their self-esteem.

Those claims aren't true, Darling-Hammond maintains. The widespread trust in retention is uncritical and unwarranted, she says. It ignores several decades of research showing that, for most children, retention:

Fails to improve low achievement in reading, math, and other subjects.

Fails to inspire students to buckle down and behave better.

Fails to develop students' social adjustment and self-concept.

Darling-Hammond concedes that grade retention might benefit some students in the short term, but in the long term, holding students back puts them at risk. More often than not, students who are retained never catch up academically. Many eventually drop out, and some end up in the juvenile justice system.

The belief that students, as well as their parents, are to blame for low achievement plays into most retention decisions. But teachers and principals seldom accept their share of blame for inept instruction, lackluster lessons, low expectations, and other school factors that contribute to students' academic disengagement and behavior problems, Darling-Hammond says.

As a result, most retained students are just recycled. But as Darling-Hammond points out, simply giving students more of what didn't work the first time around is an exercise in futility.

Teachers' power to retain

It's easy to see why teachers believe retention works. But it's less easy to understand why schools allow teachers to hold so much power over this practice.

Gwendolyn Malone, a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia and president of her local teachers union, writes in NEA Today that retention offers students the chance to "refresh, relearn, and acquire new skills," as well as to gain self-confidence and become good students. She urges schools to "nip problems in the bud by retaining students early in their school careers" -- as early as kindergarten and first grade.

Malone believes the threat of retention is an incentive for students to study so they'll be promoted with their same-age classmates. Weak students who are promoted, she says, end up feeling ashamed, angry, and defensive about their so-called deficiencies.

In most schools, classroom teachers determine which students will pass or fail. At the end of the 2003-04 school year, for instance, one New York City teacher identified 17 of her 28 third-graders for retention. The high numbers didn't trouble her -- although she told a reporter that "there would be no fourth grade if all struggling children were held back."

Shane Jimerson of the University of California-Santa Barbara says teachers play a key role in deciding which students will be retained, even though most teachers are unfamiliar with research that casts a dubious light on this practice. School psychologists should study the research and present it to school staffs, Jimerson recommends, and they should head teams consisting of counselors, teachers, and administrators who will make pass/fail decisions.

But before they make those decisions, he says, team members should know these research findings:

Retaining elementary-age students may provide an achievement "bounce," but gains tend to be slight and temporary; once the bounce tapers off, students either level off or again fall behind their classmates.

Retaining kindergarten and first-grade students as a preventive intervention is no better for students than retaining them in upper grades.

Retaining students without providing specific remedial strategies and attending to students' risk factors has little or no value.

Team decision making might help avoid a problem RMC Research Corporation's Beckie Anderson has identified. She reports that teachers often retain students to avoid criticism from teachers in the next grade for promoting poorly prepared students. Many principals, it turns out, are quietly complicit in this practice by giving teachers complete authority over retention decisions.

A troubling process

Over the years I've watched a number of schools, both rural and urban, retain more students each year, especially in kindergarten, first grade, and ninth grade. Many of the schools I've studied now hold back 30 to 40 percent of their youngest students, but a handful of schools retain close to 50 percent.

And many of the teachers and principals I've interviewed think of retention as standard practice. A first-grade teacher told me, "By November, I know which half of my class will pass and which half will fail."

The retention ritual doesn't begin in earnest until April or May, however, when teachers submit a list of students for retention to their principals, who generally approve their recommendations.

Here's how one such decision played out a few weeks before the close of school in 2004. A third-grade teacher called in a 10-year-old boy's mother to discuss retention, and I sat in on the conversation. The teacher admitted that the boy -- I'll call him Ryan -- was "quite smart," especially in science and math. But, she insisted, Ryan, who is small for his age, needed another year to "grow into third grade."

The mother balked -- Ryan had already repeated first grade for the same reason -- but the teacher overruled her objection. The principal was nowhere to be seen, and neither were the school's counselor or psychologist.

At the end of the meeting the teacher brought a signed form to the office, and Ryan was officially retained. I thought of Lorrie Shepard and Mary Smith's 1989 book Flunking Grades in which they write that "teachers consistently underplay the extent of conflict with parents over the decision to retain and underestimate the degree of parents' active resistance or passive but unhappy compliance."

Teachers may believe retention does no harm, but Anderson says researchers' interviews with children who were held back in elementary school tell a different story. More than 25 percent of the children were too ashamed to admit that they had failed a grade. Almost without exception, the retained children said staying back made them feel "sad," "bad," and "upset," and they thought repeating a grade was "punishment."

When I met with Ryan over the summer, he told me, "I'll never be smart in school. I'm only smart at things we don't do in school -- like inventing mazes and drawing." When I asked why he thought he had to repeat third grade he replied, without hesitation, "I got in lots of trouble for not walking on the red line." In this school, I learned, teachers drill students on walking silently and ramrod straight on a narrow red line that runs the length of the school's corridor.

Retention's long reach

According to best estimates, nearly 2.5 million students are retained each year in U.S. schools, with the highest rates found among boys -- especially minorities, special education students, and those who come from low-income families and live in the inner city.

University of Wisconsin-Madison's Robert Hauser, who recorded national retention rates for the National Research Council, found that 25 percent of 6- to 8-year-olds and 30 percent of 9- to 11-year-olds have been retained at least once. By ages 15 to 17, retention rates for black and Hispanic students are 40 to 50 percent, compared with 35 percent for white students.

Retention rates in some metropolitan schools are even higher. In Baltimore, for instance, a nine-year study shows that 41 percent of white students and 56 percent of black students were retained by grade three, and up to a third of those students were retained again before entering middle school.

Schools often retain students on the basis of a shortsighted belief that repeating a grade will give kids a boost that will last through 12th grade. It's true that retention reaches far into students' futures, but often the long-term effects are devastating. Jimerson's studies show that students who are retained once are 40 to 50 percent more likely to drop out than promoted students. Retaining students twice doubles their chances of dropping out, raising the risk to 90 percent.

Retention is a predictor of dropping out, not a cause, he says. Achievement, behavior, and home and school environments also factor into the equation. Still, retained students run a high risk of developing problems with self-esteem, social and emotional adjustment, peer relations, and school engagement -- and such problems substantially increase the likelihood of giving up on school.

A better plan

But if retention isn't working, neither is promoting students who aren't learning. As Darling-Hammond puts it, "The negative effects of retention should not become an argument for social promotion."

The solution, say Richard Allington and Sean Walmsley, authors of No Quick Fix, requires whole-school reform, beginning with the school's "institutional ethos."

In schools with an adversarial climate (teachers against parents and students), Allington and Walmsley found that two out of three children were retained, assigned to transitional classes, or placed in special education. But schools with a respectful and professional climate retained only 1 or 2 percent of their students.

How can school leaders halt runaway retention? Darling-Hammond recommends four strategies:

1. Teach teachers how to instruct all students according to the ways they learn.

2. Redesign schools to give students more intensive learning opportunities through multiage classes, cross-grade grouping, and block scheduling.

3. Give struggling students support and services as soon as they're needed.

4. Use student assessments to monitor and adjust teaching content and strategies.

For his part, Jimerson suggests "constructive discussions" on prevention and intervention techniques that keep students from failing in the first place. In addition, he recommends:

1. Train school psychologists to be well-informed about retention research and serve as advocates for children as soon as they show problems learning.

2. Promote students' social competence as a counterpart to academic competence.

3. Establish protective factors, such as parent involvement programs and school-community partnerships that offer support to needy children.

4. Sponsor high-quality preschool programs that focus on child development.

These researchers lay out a tough mission for schools. But perhaps the toughest job will be confronting and dismantling ungrounded assumptions about retention.


Susan Black, an ASBJ contributing editor, is an education researcher in Hammondsport, N.Y.

— Susan Black
American School Board Journal

Making students repeat a grade hasn\'t worked for 100 years, so why is it still happening? And why do government officials, school leaders, and teache


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