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In-Grade Retention Called Inadequate

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At a time when some of the nation's largest school districts are considering abandoning their "social promotion" policies--or have already done so--in response to the public's call for higher standards, at least one researcher is arguing that the practice of failing children who do not meet achievement standards is an ineffective method of ensuring academic progress.

Frederic J. Medway, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, argues in a paper to be presented later this month at a meeting of the National Association of School Psychologists that holding students back does not work when it "involves repetition of subject matter by the same instructional means."

Based on a review of existing studies, Mr. Medway has concluded that "accountability and adequate remedial programs are far more important to student competency than wholesale retention." Furthermore, he contends, there needs to be a middle ground between "wholesale" social promotion and retention in the same grade.

Nationwide, retention figures in elemen-tary schools range from about 12 percent to more than 30 percent," according to Mr. Medway. And as more states establish minimum-competency testing programs, he contends, the rate of in-grade retention will increase still further.

A study done for the School District of Philadelphia, which is weighing a shift to achievement-based promotion in the elementary grades, indicated that retention rates would triple or quadruple under the proposed new policy. (See Education Week, April 11, 1984.)

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At least four states now allow schools to use the results of competency tests as the basis for promotion to high school, Mr. Medway notes in his research paper. "In many other states and local school districts, the high cost of remediation, coupled with public pressure against social promotion, has made retention an increasingly popular educational alternative," he writes.

But Mr. Medway cautions against the use of competency tests for this purpose only. He cites earlier studies that found a pattern of discrimination against black and Hispanic students who live in Southern states and whose families have low income levels and less than a high-school education.

In fact, he writes, researchers have found that among children in the same socioeconomic group who have similiar achievement scores, about 65 percent of those who are promoted perform better academically than those who are held back in a grade.

On the other hand, Mr. Medway suggests, in-grade retention does not appear to hurt students psychologically. But he notes that existing studies on the practice clearly show "little educational benefit for children beyond the 6th grade." Students with special learning problems are "least likely to benefit from being held back," the research indicates, in his view.

Mr. Medway maintains that educators should identify children with serious learning problems early so that they can be provided with a full range of remedial services before any decision on retention is made.

"Increased parental involvement, transitional classrooms, summer remedial programs and other remedial work, along with early identification of children with special problems, will help schools deal with the promotion-retention quandary," Mr. Medway said.

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