+Abolish Grade Retention, Massachusetts Chief Says
Launching a rare attack on one of the most widespread school policies, Massachusetts' commissioner of education last week urged the state's districts to cease retaining low-achieving students in grade.
In a report submitted to the state board of education last week, the commissioner, Harold Raynolds Jr., found that nearly all Massachusetts schools recommended students for retention in the 1989-90 school year, and that rates in urban schools and those with large minority populations were substantially higher than those in suburban and rural schools.
In some districts, some 20 percent of kindergartners and 1st graders and 35 percent of 8th graders were required to repeat grades.
But far from improving the academic and psychological fortunes of these students, the report argues, the practice is a costly move that may in fact retard their academic achievement and make it more likely that they will drop out of school.
Grade retention is "a refuge for those who take the view of education as a high-jump bar--students have to keep jumping until they get over it," Mr. Raynolds said in an interview. "That's not a very useful idea from an educational standpoint."
"It's blaming the victim because the child doesn't fit the pattern of education provided," he continued, "instead of wondering, 'What is the school doing?"'
"The school has the responsibility of making sure all children learn," the commissioner said.
Instead of retaining students, the report recommends that districts adopt alternative policies for ensuring that all students succeed. Such policies, it suggests, should include changes in curricula, new methods of grouping students, and the use of mentors.
Although the state lacks the authority to mandate such policies, Mr. Raynolds said, the department of education will consider awarding discretionary grants only to those districts that have adopted alternatives to grade retention.
In addition, he said, state officials plan to use the "bully pulpit to emphasize, highlight, underscore, and demonstrate the lack of usefulness activities such as grade retention have."
Lorrie A. Shepard, the co-editor of Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention, a 1989 book on the issue, said Mr. Raynolds's report is one of the first attempts by a state-level policymaker to re-examine the policy of grade retention. While some states--such as Mississippi and Georgia--have backed away from controversial kindergarten-retention policies, Ms. Shepard said, there has been little public outcry about holding students back in other grades.
"It's still on the upswing," she said. "The public believes that's what you do with kids who aren't achieving."
The report issued last week is the second in a series aimed at examining ways to redesign school policies in order to reduce the dropout rate, which is as high as 40 percent in some Massachusetts cities, Mr. Raynolds said.
The first report, released in January, urged districts to eliminate tracking and ability-grouping, a4policy that is coming under increasing scrutiny from educators. (See Education Week, March 28, 1990.)
Future reports will examine discipline policies and curricula, according to Dan French, a dropout-prevention specialist in the department and the author of the reports.
The issues of ability-grouping and grade retention are linked, noted Mr. Raynolds, because both practices result in low-achieving students' receiving lower-level instruction.
"Grade retention is tracking with a vengeance," he said. "We are terribly good in public education at sorting, but not good in educating children in an equitable way."
The new report found that nearly all districts recommend retaining students in grade, and that the overall statewide rate--3.5 percent--is at the low end of the national average of between 2 percent and 8 percent.
But the rate varies widely throughout the state, the report found. Some 66 percent of the total number of students recommended for retention were in urban districts, it found, even though such districts serve only 41 percent of the state's student population.
Moreover, the annual retention rate masks the true extent of the practice, Mr. French noted. Because few students repeat more than one grade, they may show up only on one year's statistics, he said, yet many are repeating grades.
"If you followed one class from kindergarten through high-school graduation," he maintained, "well over 50 percent of the students [in some districts] would have dropped out or been retained in grade."
Such high rates also add to the cost of education, since districts must pay for the additional years of schooling, the report notes. In Massachusetts, it found, with 28,233 students recommended for retention in the 1989-90 school year and an average per-pupil cost of $4,259, the total statewide cost of retentions could be as high as $120 million.
"Such high costs would be laudable," it says, "if the practice was found to be effective in substantially raising academic achievement. However, this is not the case."
"Our public schools," it says, "are significantly increasing school budgets by retaining students without any indication that the money is well spent."
Not only is the practice ineffective in raising achievement, the report adds, it may in fact "retard academic progress, undermine student self-esteem, and ultimately contribute to a student's decision to drop out of school."
Instead of retaining low-achieving students, the report states, districts should adopt comprehensive strategies for "successfully engaging all students, especially those achieving at low levels."
It includes several examples of such programs, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere. But Mr. French said that department officials hope the report will spur districts to develop model approaches that could be replicated throughout the state.
"As far as we are concerned," he said, "grade retention is the easy answer to the complex problem of raising the achievement levels of low-achieving students."