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Rethinking Retention

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The dilemma is one that many thousands of the nation's teachers grapple with each year. And the issue is becoming even thornier now that new research suggests the downside of retention may be even worse than people once thought.

Most teachers and administrators have traditionally supported holding students back a year for a number of reasons. They assumed that by forcing slow learners to repeat a grade, the students would mature, master deficient skills, and be less likely to fail when they reached the next grade. In this way, retention supporters argued, the dropout rate would actually be lowered. In addition, many educators have seen retention as a way to ensure the competence of high school graduates and bring standards and accountability to the educational system.

Support for retention became even stronger in the early 1980s. The first wave of educational reformers, driven by horror stories of illiterate high school graduates, took a get-tough stance, setting rigid guidelines that required low-achieving pupils to repeat a grade. Policies that tie promotion to test scores have been particularly common in reform-minded Southern states, such as Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina.

A growing body of research, however, challenges the assumption that retention helps students. In fact, research suggests the practice may actually cause them to drop out. As a result, a number of educators and policymakers have begun to reassess retention policies.

In a report released in April, the Massachusetts commissioner of education urged school districts to cease holding back low-achieving students; he cited research showing that the practice does not work. And a report by the Massachusetts Advocacy Council recommended that the Boston school system stop linking promotions to students' standardized test scores.

In May the chancellor of the New York City school system announced that he would end a mandatory, citywide policy that automatically holds students back in grades 4 and 7 if they score poorly on standardized tests.

The Chicago school system is reevaluating its promotion policy as part of a systemwide reform effort mandated by the state legislature.

And in June, Florida lawmakers became among the nation's first to adopt a measure encouraging districts to abolish retention in the early grades.

There are no reliable national data on the number of public school students retained each year. But Lorrie Shepard, the co-editor of a 1989 book on retention, estimates that as many as 2.4 million-- or 6 percent of K-12 pupils--are held back annually. By the 9th grade, says Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder, approximately 50 percent of all U.S. students have failed at least one grade or are no longer in school. She estimates that districts collectively spend nearly $10 billion annually to pay for the extra year of school necessitated by holding so many back.

Retention rates vary widely. A study of 29 urban school systems found that nonpromotion rates for 1st graders ranged from a low of 1 percent to a high of 23 percent. For 9th graders the rate ranged from 1 percent to 63 percent. The study, conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, also found that the poorest districts were twice as likely as their wealthier counterparts to fail students.

Recent research raises serious questions about the benefits of this practice. A 1989 analysis of 63 controlled studies--in which retained students were followed and compared with children of similar achievement who went directly on to the next grade-- found that youngsters who were held back actually performed worse than those who were not. Their behavior, school attitudes, and attendance were also poorer.

The research indicates that most children perceive "staying back'' as punishment, which makes them feel sad, bad, upset, or embarrassed-- emotions that may be manifested in later behavioral difficulties.

"The other children called me 'burro,' slang for dumb,'' recalls a school administrator in Arizona who was held back as a child. Watching them go to the next grade without him was painful, he told The Arizona Republic, asking that he not be identified. "There's always this gnawing feeling that something is wrong with you. It's something that still lingers. It never really leaves you.''

For many children, the problems associated with retention culminate in the students' quitting school, critics of the practice assert. A 1986 New York City study found that 40 percent of the city's children who were retained dropped out before the end of high school, compared with 25 percent of students with comparable reading levels who had not been held back. Similar findings have emerged from research in Chicago, Boston, and Dade County, Fla.

But among educators there is still no general consensus on whether retention is good or bad. Teacher Sharon Lee, like many others, is torn over the issue. "If we don't have standards and just pass kids along, are we perpetuating [a situation in which] students graduate from school illiterate?'' she asks. At the same time, she worries: Will just "following guidelines and retaining children'' cause them to drop out down the road?

Teacher Beatrice Mitchell doesn't have such doubts. She believes that retaining children--especially young children--benefits them, and she holds back one or two pupils a year. "At first the kids who are retained feel bad,'' says Mitchell, a 1st grade teacher at Hearst Elementary School in Washington, D.C. But she says she works hard at boosting their selfesteem and finds that "maturity--just being one year older--makes them do better.''

At least one survey has found that a majority of teachers agree with Mitchell. Researchers Deborah Byrnes of Utah State University and Kaoru Yamamoto of Arizona State University polled 145 Arizona elementary teachers, 65 percent of whom said they believe students who do not meet the requirements of the grade should usually or always be retained.

From personal interviews with 25 of the teachers, Byrnes and Yamamoto also discovered that many teachers feel pressure to retain students from their colleagues in the next grade. Writing in The Journal of Research and Development in Education, the researchers reported that the teachers "felt that the next grade teachers would not be able to accommodate the child's level of skills or emotional development and the child would experience even more failure. They also feared being ridiculed by the teachers of the following grade for creating more work for them by sending such ill-prepared students.''

Shepard and other critics of traditional retention practices argue that the alternative to retaining students is not simply to promote them, but to promote them while providing additional support, such as tutoring and mentoring. "Instead of 'social promotion,' which is sort of 'promote them and don't pay any attention to their lack of skills,'' she says, "we talk about normal grade-promotion plus.''

The growing skepticism about the value of retaining students is prompting some schools to change their policies, especially in the early grades. In recent years states such as Georgia have backed away from the controversial practice of making children repeat kindergarten because of low test scores. And wideranging school reform legislation in Kentucky has replaced grades K-3 with an ungraded primary program in which children will progress at their own pace. Mississippi is also experimenting with ungraded classrooms in grades 1-3.

Despite such stirrings, many educators note that changing the public's belief in the efficacy of retention may prove difficult. According to a 1986 Gallup poll, 72 percent of citizens surveyed favored stricter promotion standards.

Another problem, according to Shepard, is that most alternatives to retention cost money, which must be requested in a district's budget on a line-item basis. In contrast, the cost of retention is hidden in a district's education budget and billed to the state in the form of per-pupil costs.

Regardless of the arguments for and against current retention policies, another observer suggests, the prevalence of the practice points to the deficiencies in the education afforded many students.

"Anyway you look at it,'' notes Lynn Cornett, vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, "the retention rates do tell us that there are large numbers of students who are not prepared to move on to the next grade, and that seems to be what is important about it.''

Lynn Olson, Education Week

Editorial Assistant M. Dominique Long also contributed to this report.

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