By Meg Heron-Blake, Ed.S.
There are few issues in educational research upon which there is such consensus. Yet, this year thousands of parents will have to face the possibility that their child will be retained. This issue is especially of concern to parents of children with learning disabilities. While some districts exclude students with learning disabilities from retention policies, research has shown that learning disabled children are at additional risk for being held back. In a 1996 study exploring retention rates of students with undiagnosed learning disabilities, researcher Katherine Barnett found that 71% had been retained at least once. More than a third of children with learning disabilities had repeated one grade according to 1995 Census Bureau data. And this number may grow as school districts adopt policies in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act.
This is disturbing considering the voluminous research pillorying the practice, or at best calling for extreme caution in its implementation. The titles of some of the articles on grade retention alone tell the story. One hyperbolic headline reads, “Your Child has a Better Chance of Surviving a Heart Attack than Retention."
The culmination of research has shown that retained students are more likely to drop out, do not show academic gains, and are more at-risk for behavioral difficulties.
Additionally, the damage to self-esteem can be devastating. One study found that children rank retention as their third biggest fear, after blindness and death of a parent. And this fear is too often realized. According to the National Educational Longitudinal Survey in 1988, one in five 8th graders has repeated at least one grade.
So are retention or social promotion our only options when a student is not achieving academically? Additional tutoring and parent involvement programs are often cited interventions to reduce academic failure. Linda Darling-Hammond in her article “Alternatives to Grade Retention” offers many others. First, citing studies that have indicated teacher expertise is the most important determinant of student performance, she calls for enhancing professional development. Teachers networks, expert consulting relationships, and pairing expert teachers with those with less experience, are some of the ways to accomplish this. Darling- Hammond also suggests redesigning schools so as to promote closer relationships between students and teachers.
Specific examples include smaller class sizes, longer class periods, and remaining with teachers for more than one year. Multi-age grades have been shown to be effective in promoting academic progress. Programs targeted for specific populations, such as Reading Recovery programs, may reduce the number of students at-risk for retention. Finally, moving away from standardized tests as the final arbiter of retention and replacing single tests with more detailed assessments of how students think, their strategies, and areas of strengths and weakness provide a better way of making serious decisions about a child’s future.
Chicago ended “social promotion” in 1996, and though the research results depend on how the data is interpreted, there is enough evidence to give further credibility to the mountains of past research. Although the number of students passing the high stakes testing rose in the first few years, the students held back were doing no better two years later than similarly unsuccessful students who had been socially promoted in previous years. A recent study on the efficacy of the summer program that is mandatory for failing students found similar results.
As more school districts adopt retention policies, it is more important than ever to be an “educated consumer”. Ask questions, explore alternatives, and reject cookie-cutter approaches that ignore individual differences
Barnett, K.P. (1996). Grade retention among students with learning disabilities. Psychology in the Schools, 33, 4, 285-293.
Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Alternatives to grade retention. School Administrator, 55, 7, 18-21.
Gewertz, Catherine (2002). More Chicago pupils flunk. Education Week, October.
Harrington-Lueker, D. (1998). Retention vs. social promotion. School Administrator, 55, 7, 6-12.
Natriello, G. (1998). Failing grades in retention. School Administrator, 55, 7, 14-17.
Roderick, M., Engel, M. & Nagaoka, J. (2003). Report Highlights: Ending Social Promotion: Results from Summer Bridge. www.consortium-chicago.org.
Viadero, Debra. (2000). Study looks at retention policy in Chicago. Education Week, January.