Education Officials Reconsider Policies On Grade Retention

By Lynn Olson — May 16, 1990 13 min read

After a decade-long trend toward stricter policies requiring low-achieving pupils to repeat a grade, a number of school leaders are beginning to reassess the wisdom of such practices and call for a more flexible approach.

Moves to overhaul student-retention rules are under way in several big-city school districts.

And at least one state school chief is considering denying certain kinds of grants to districts in his state that fail to abandon such policies.

For critics of mandatory retention, these developments offer hope that policymakers are starting to heed a large body of research indicating that retention does not benefit students--and may actually cause them to drop out.

“In a lot of places, where standards have been raised during the last decade,” says Joan McCarty First, president of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, “the remedial strategy of choice has been retention. And that means it’s made it much more difficult for kids who were having trouble in the first place.”

While there is still no widespread movement away from the practice, critics of retention policies can cite a number of gains for their position over the past month or two.

  • This month, the chancellor of the New York City school system announced that he would end a mandatory, citywide policy that automatically held students back in grades 4 and 7 if they scored poorly on standardized tests.

According to Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, evaluations of the district’s “promotional gates” program suggested that it had “no appreciable value in fostering student advancement.” In fact, he said, it may have encouraged youngsters to drop out.

  • In a report released in April, Harold Raynolds Jr., the Massachusetts commissioner of education, urged school districts in that state to cease retaining low-achieving students in grade. He cited research showing that the practice does not work.

Mr. Raynolds said his department would consider awarding discretionary grants only to districts that have adopted alternatives to retention.

  • In a separate report, the Massachusetts Advocacy Council recommended that the Boston school system cease linking promotions to students’ scores on standardized tests and introduce alternatives to retention in every school.

The system’s interim superintendent, Joseph McDonough, has sent a memo to area superintendents asking them to identify the reasons some schools have high or low retention rates. The memo directs principals to meet with teachers to devise alternatives to current practices.

Boston has also backed away from a policy, scheduled to take effect this school year, under which students would have been retained in grades 1, 5, 8, and 12, based primarily on their scores on the Metropolitan Achievement Test. The district’s current policy is tied to scores on the Degrees of Reading Power test.

  • And in Chicago, the school district is reevaluating its promotion policy as part of a systemwide reform effort mandated by the state legislature.

An April draft of the revised policy would eliminate the use of students’ scores on the Iowa Basic Skills Test as a primary criterion for holding students back in grades K-8. Instead, students would be retained based on their report cards and the judgments of teachers and principals.

The draft policy portrays retention as a “last resort” and describes a number of steps that schools would have to take before they could retain or demote a student. Once such a decision was made, the draft adds, the school would be obligated to offer “different instructional strategies, different curricular materials, and a different sequence of instruction to ensure that students who repeat the same grade do not do so in the same way.”

The draft is expected to be sent out for review by Chicago’s local school councils this month.

Estimate of 2.4 Million Pupils

There are no reliable national data on the number of public-school students retained in grade each year. But Lorrie A. Shepard, the co-editor of a 1989 book on the subject, esti4mates that as many as 2.4 million students annually--or 6 percent of K-12 pupils--may be held back.

That means that by the 9th grade, approximately 50 percent of all U.S. students have failed at least one grade or are no longer in school, says the professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Collectively, Ms. Shepard estimates, school districts spend nearly $10 billion a year to pay for the extra year of schooling necessitated by holding so many students back.

Retention rates vary widely from one school system to another, and from school to school and grade to grade within a district.

A study of retention rates in 29 urban school systems in 1987-88 found that nonpromotion rates for 1st graders ranged from a low of 1 percent to a high of 23 percent. For 9th graders, the rates ranged from 1 percent to 63 percent.

The study, conducted for the Council of the Great City Schools by Joseph F. Gastright, head of testing services for the Cincinnati Public Schools, also found that the poorest districts economically were two times more likely than their wealthier counterparts to fail students in grades K-12.

Researchers have also found that students who are male, black, or Hispanic are much more likely to be retained than female or white students.

Ms. Shepard asserts that the use of formal retention policies increased during the 1980s, in part because of the “educational excellence’’ movement.

Policies that tie promotion to test scores have been particularly common in the South, in such states as Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, all of which were active in the reform efforts of the 80s.

Faulty Assumptions?

Traditionally, educators have offered a number of reasons for holding students back a year.

By forcing academically troubled youngsters to repeat a grade, it was assumed that they would mature, master deficient skills, and be less likely to fail when they reached the next grade. In this way, it was surmised, the dropout rate would actually be lowered.

Retention was also viewed as a way to ensure the competence of high-school graduates and to introduce standards and accountability into the educational system.

For years, educators derided the practice of “social promotion,” in which students were passed on from grade to grade, regardless of performance.

But a growing body of research suggests that none of the assumptions about retention may hold true.

In a 1989 synthesis 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--C. Thomas Holmes found that nonpromoted youngsters actually performed more poorly on average than those who had not repeated a grade.

Mr. Holmes, a professor of educational administration at the University of Georgia, also found that retained students generally performed worse than their matched peers on follow-up measures of social adjustment, behavior, school attitudes, and attendance.

The research indicates that most children perceive retention as punishment, which makes them feel"sad,” “bad,” “upset,” or “embarrassed"--emotions that opponents say are manifested in later behavioral difficulties.

Such problems, critics of grade retention point out, often culminate in a student’s quitting school.

In explaining his reversal of New York City’s policy, Mr. Fernandez noted that a 1986 study found that 40 percent of the city’s students 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 separate studies in Chicago, Boston, and Dade County, Fla. In each instance, retained or overage students were approximately twice as likely to leave school prior to graduation as their nonretained peers.

Other studies have found that dropouts are five times more likely to have repeated a grade than high-school graduates. Students who repeat two grades have a probability of dropping out of nearly 100 percent, according to Ms. Shepard of the University of Colorado.

Added Services

It remains unclear exactly why traditional retention practices apparently do not work.

In addition to the impairment of subsequent learning that may be traced to the emotional effects of holding students back, Ms. Shepherd suggests, a policy that forces youngsters to go through the same material again is a “crude and ineffective way to individualize instruction.’'

The position of the National Association of Black School Educators is that school districts have an obligation to provide retained students with instruction that is “different” from what they received the first time around, says J. Jerome Harris, president of the organization and superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools.

“But that policy, we think, is violated by most systems,” he asserts.

Some educators maintain that if students are given help and assistance in addition to being retained, retention may be effective.

Mr. Harris’s district, for example, is preparing the equivalent of an individualized education program, like those employed in special education, for every child who is not promoted.

And in the Philadelphia school district--which retains some 22 percent of students in grades 1-8 each year, based on a combination of teacher judgments and test scores--pupils who are not promoted are eligible to attend summer school and receive continued support services during the year, such as tutoring and mentoring.

Whether those services are “sufficient to override the generally negative effects of retention by itself is still an open question,” says Spencer H. Davis, director of the office of assessment for the school district, “and we’ve been looking at that.”

Philadelphia has also begun an ungraded program in 19 middle schools, in which students with multiple retentions or other chronic problems are paired up with four teachers and an assistant who can provide them with more individualized instruction over a period of several years.

According to the analysis by Mr. Holmes of the University of Georgia, only 9 of the 63 controlled studies of the subject showed overall positive results from holding pupils back. Inel15lmost of those cases, he found, the retained students had received extra help through individualized programs and smaller classes, while the promoted students had not.

Even so, the researcher notes, the apparent benefits tended to diminish over time, so that differences in performance between the promoted and nonpromoted youngsters disappeared.

Ms. 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 continued assistance support--much like that which Philadelphia and other districts offer pupils who repeat a grade.

“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.”

Early-Grades Shift

The movement away from rigid retention policies appears strongest in the early grades. In recent years, states such as Georgia have backed away from controversial kindergarten-retention policies based on test scores.

And the wide-ranging school-reform legislation enacted this spring in Kentucky replaces grades K-3 with a “primary school program” in which children will progress at their own pace, in multi-age groupings.

“The development of kids at that age is very rapid and uneven, and we felt that it was inappropriate to retain kids between the 1st and 2nd grade,” said Jack D. Foster, secretary of the education and humanities cabinet for the state.

Kentucky pupils will have to pass a test, however, for entry into the 4th grade. Although lawmakers did not want to “instill a sense of failure” in children from the beginning, Mr. Foster said, they sought to ensure that children had gained the necessary competencies by a certain point.

The Mississippi legislature has also approved a pilot program for ungraded classrooms in grades 1-3.

In Florida, the House Education Committee has passed a measure that would eliminate the test now required for the promotion of students from grade 3 to grade 4, and replace it with a system of continuous progress for all youngsters up to grade 5.

According to a staff member for the committee, up to one-third of Florida students are now retained by the time they reach the 4th grade.

In Boston, school officials are studying eight elementary schools with few or no retentions in the 1st grade to determine what they are doing differently.

“I’d like to have better information on why there are some schools where the retention rate of 1st graders is very low or nonexistent, and in other schools it’s 17 percent or higher,” says Joyce M. Grant, Boston’s deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

New York City’s new policy will offer 3rd graders who do not meet promotion standards a chance to improve through summer school and after-school help during 4th grade. Participants in the program will not be held back, regardless of their performance.

But children who refuse to participate could be forced to repeat the 3rd grade, Mr. Fernandez said. In addition, individual schools can still retain students in any grade, based on teacher and principal judgments.

Robin Willner, the district’s executive director for strategic planning, explains that the policy is designed to encourage teachers to weigh a variety of factors in making retention decisions, and to include a child’s parents in the process.

Says Ms. Willner: “The evidence clearly demonstrates that blanket retention policies don’t work. Research does not say that every single child is hurt by retention.”

Public Beliefs, Peer Pressure

Despite such stirrings, advocates of more flexible approaches note that changing the public’s ingrained belief in the efficacy of retention may prove difficult.

According to a 1986 Gallup poll, 72 percent of citizens surveyed favored stricter grade-to-grade promotion standards.

At a public hearing this month in Georgia on various state academic requirements, only one person spoke out against a rule requiring students to pass a statewide test in reading and mathematics to progress from grade 3 to grade 4, according to Stan Bernknopf, director of the education department’s division of assessment.

“There is an expression of concern from time to time,” he says, “but it is not, or has not to this day, been an overwhelming outcry.”

Richard C. Owens, a member of the Georgia Board of Education, acknowledges that the research on retention is largely negative. But, he adds, “I know some students in my local school district who were retained, and I don’t think it hurt them.”

In Cleveland, meanwhile, the school board is considering stiffening its promotion policies, despite the objections of Superintendent Alfred D. Tutela, who calls retention “one of the most oppressive activities that a school system does.”

“The adults get paid for kids to learn,” he says, “and then we penalize the kids for not learning.”

One factor contributing to the widespread support for tough promotion policies, says Ms. Shepard, is that teachers feel pressured to retain students by their colleagues in the next grade.

“It’s very hard for a teacher to examine her own beliefs about whether retention is a good thing or not, because she has to fight her colleagues,” the University of Colorado researcher asserts.

“One of the most powerful messages to new teachers who innocently send on students is to have the humiliating experience of having those students sent back to them,” she adds. “They learn in a really ‘imprinting’ way never to do that again.”

Another problem, according to Ms. 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 school system’s general 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 educator suggests, the prevalence of the practice points to the deficiencies in the education afforded many students.

“Anyway you look at it,” observes Lynn Cornett, vice president for state services for 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’s important about it.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1990 edition of Education Week as Education Officials Reconsider Policies On Grade Retention